Is Ice Treatment On Skin Burns Effective?

As a child, whenever we touched anything hot and received burns, the first treatment administered was to allow running water to flow over the affected area. This provided a cooling effect and minimized the pain. With the advent of refrigerators, we thought we could use ice or ice-cold water to treat burn injuries. It worked for some people, who felt less pain, but most were left with permanent scars. Here are the facts that will help clear the confusion on whether to use ice as a treatment for burn injuries or not.

Reasons Why You Should Not Use Ice

  • Ice and ice water can further damage the tissue and even result in frostbite if left in contact with the tissue too long. The burn may expose underlying tissue, which is fragile and more likely to be damaged by exposure to ice. Also, if the skin surrounding the burn is damaged by the ice, it may impede the healing process.
  • The other reason is specific to second and third-degree burns, where the epidermal surface of the skin is damaged. Placing ice or ice water
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    directly on these burns causes the victim’s body temperature to dramatically drop, which may cause additional complications.

What Experts Say

Although using ice can help alleviate some initial pain, it will slow the healing process. Experts advise not to treat burns with ice or ice water, as it can reduce the body temperature drastically. The affected area that is in direct contact with the ice can turn so cold that more damage than good occurs. Using water that is at room temperature or cool water works best.

An experimental study was conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of prolonged and excessive cooling on the burn wound immediately after the injury. Using an ice cube for prolonged cooling of the burn wound immediately after injury is harmful in some instances.1

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In another study2, the application of 16°C tap water for 1 minute was compared to an ice cube applied for 10 minutes. When applying ice, the pressure of application is as important, since the combination of pressure and cold has been reported to cause tissue damage. In the studies conducted, the ice gave no benefit to wound healing compared to an untreated control. Ice does not appear to be as effective as running water on the healing burn wound. Here is what some prominent institutions recommend.

  • ANZBA (Australian and New Zealand Burn Association) – Cool the burn surface with running water at 15°C for 20 minutes, up to 3 hours after the injury has occurred. Keep patient warm. Do not use ice or ice water.
  • International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation (ILCOR) – Cool with cold water as soon as possible. Avoid ice or ice water.
  • Australian Resuscitation Council – Do not use ice.

Researchers who conducted a study3 report that the ice-treated wounds had thicker eschar, with deeper damage, massive hemorrhage, more extensive cell infiltrations and swelling and adherence of the wound to the muscular tissue. It is possible that the reluctance in using ice for burns is not because of its ability to help or hinder wound healing, but because of the possible adverse effect of hypothermia.

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