Frostbite with an Ice Pack

Ice Packs are Great for Swelling: When Used Properly

Close-up of a woman sitting with an icepack on her leg
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It's possible to get frostbite when using an ice pack, if you don't do it properly. Ask any coach or PE teacher how to treat a twisted ankle and he or she is likely to say RICE -- rest, ice, compression and elevation. It's a tried and true method that works pretty well, as long as you follow one very important rule for icing the injury:

Don't put ice directly on the skin.

Water freezes at 32 degrees, but the ice that comes out of the freezer is likely to be much colder than that.

Putting ice or any kind of chemical cold pack -- homemade or otherwise -- directly on skin can lead to frostbite rather quickly.

Even folks you'd think are familiar with the dangers of putting ice directly on the skin have managed to create frostbite from ice packs. One published case of a PE coach described how the coach needed surgery to repair frostbitten skin damaged after using a bag of frozen fried potatoes. This just illustrates how something that seems so minor can be devastating. You'd think a PE coach would know better, but all of us get careless.

Another case of frostbite at a gym occurred after a staff member improperly instructed an injured client to place an ice pack directly on the skin when elevating her leg. The gym member got a palm-sized blister from the ice pack. It took 10 days of frostbite treatment, which is identical to burn treatment in this case, to heal her frostbite.

Frostbite and burns are so similar that some folks refer to frostbite as an ice burn.

Ice Your Injury Correctly

Frostbite from ice packs can be avoided by following a couple of simple rules.

  1. Don't ever put ice or ice packs directly on the skin. There has to be a layer of something substantial between the ice and the body surface. The thin plastic of a plastic bag is not enough to make a difference. Put a towel or two -- or some other material of about the same thickness -- between the ice pack and the skin.
  1. Never leave an ice pack on the injury for more than 20 minutes. Always alternate between ice and no ice. A good rule of thumb is 20 minutes on followed by 20 minutes off. The object of an ice pack is to cool the muscle without damaging the skin.

Follow proper icing procedure and your skin will thank you.


Graham, Colin A & James Stevenson. "Frozen chips: an unusual cause of severe frostbite injury." Br J Sports Med. 2000

Mac Auley, D.C. "Ice therapy: how good is the evidence?." Int J Sports Med. Jul 2001

O'Toole, G. & S. Rayatt. "Frostbite at the gym: a case report of an ice pack burn." Br J Sports Med. 1999

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