How To Use A Cold Compress Or Ice Pack

cold compress ice pack

How to use a cold compress or ice pack to treat an injury is not something most people stop to think about until they have injured themselves. The question then asked is one that might make you scratch your head for a moment, given the answer seems obvious. Alas, as we are not all on the same cognitive page, let’s look into some of the internet’s most asked questions surrounding the use of a cold compress and ice packs. Skills Training College provides a range of First Aid Courses anyone can fit into their busy schedule.

Is an Ice Pack A Cold Compress

The definition of a cold compress is as follows: 

“A cloth imbibed with ice-cold water applied locally to relieve pain, stop bleeding, and decrease congestion and swelling caused by acute local trauma.”

An ice pack as we know it today is gel encased inside plastic that can be frozen or heated to act as a dual-purpose cold/heat pack. By technical definition, an ice pack is not a cold compress, and yet, it is a form of cold compression when applied to an injury.

ice pack cold compress


So, the answer to that question is YES and NO, making it clear as mud and open to practical interpretation as both items do the same job even if they are technically not the same thing.

What Injuries Are Ice Packs Used For?

You can place an ice pack anywhere on your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, without exception. Ice packs and cold compresses are used to reduce swelling, control pain by numbing an area, and cool overheated areas of the body.

From reducing the puffiness around your eyes, dulling that ache in your lower back, the throbbing headache in your forehead, to the sprained ankle or suspected broken arm. Injuries that aren’t life threatening can often benefit from the application of a cold compress immediately after the injury occurs.

swelling puffiness eyes
Swelling around eye

Injuries should only have COLD COMPRESSION applied in the first 72 hours.

Heat should never be applied to a new injury as it causes the injury to swell, heat up and create significant pain. The application of ice packs and a cold compress shrinks the blood vessels and restricts the amount of swelling to an injury site. It also acts as a numbing agent to reduce the pain felt by a person with the injury until pain relief can be administered.

Where Is Cold Compress Used?

Cold compresses are used specifically when it comes to overheating, such as when a person has a fever due to an illness the body is fighting, or high temperatures from sunstroke or heat exhaustion.

Never use rubbing alcohol to cool down a body due to the potential for alcohol poisoning to kill the person. When the body is overheated, the blood vessels rise to the surface of the skin and using rubbing alcohol can result in the alcohol being directly absorbed into the bloodstream. If used on children and infants, the potential to be life-threatening is a real danger that should be avoided at all costs.

Ice Pack For Face

If you have ever had the unfortunate fate of receiving a black eye, broken nose or facial injury, then you would be familiar with the use of ice packs and cold compresses to help reduce the swelling and pain.

Even if you are not sporting an injury, the use of cold compresses to reduce the puffiness and swelling around the eyes has been a beauty tip for hundreds of years. The use of cucumbers and cold tea bags is also touted to reduce swelling, and both are a form of cold compress.

In America, there is an old practice of using a cold steak on the face. We strongly advise you not to use raw meat products on any wound as there is the potential for bacteria from the dead animal blood to enter the human body and cause infection in the wound. If you only have raw meat on hand, use a barrier like plastic wrap to prevent the meat from directly contacting the skin.

Ice Packs For Injury

Ice packs for injury are typically used with the R.I.C.E treatment method.

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Regardless of where the injury is on the body, applying an ice pack or cold compress for 20 minutes immediately after the accident will reduce swelling and pain to some degree but not mitigate it entirely. You rest the affected area and keep it elevated, generally by using pillows or something comfortable to prop up the injury, so it is above the heart level. Lastly, you bandage or strap the injury to give it support and to act as a form of compression that also reduces the amount of swelling to the site.

Care must be taken when strapping limbs as injury sites can still swell even with ice, and a bandage wrapped too tightly will cut off the circulation to everything below the injury site, causing large problems. Any injury that has a bandage applied should be checked every 10 minutes for the first hours to ensure that there is sufficient capillary action and blood flow to the toes or fingers.

This is done by gently pressing on the skin until it is white and then releasing it. Healthy blood-rich vessels will quickly return to a pink colour that matches the rest of the skin. If it stays white or turns blue, the bandage must be removed as circulation has been cut, and the limb is deprived of blood flow and oxygen. Without oxygen, the tissue dies, and larger problems may present up to and including amputation in a ‘worst case scenario’.

Should Ice Pack Be Placed Directly On Skin?

The blunt answer is NO!

Ice is frozen water, and when something frozen is placed directly onto the skin, it creates a cold burn on the area. Cold burns are commonly referred to as Frostbite or Chilblains. Any ice pack, regardless of its description, should have a layer between it and the skin to form a barrier and prevent the cold burn from taking place.

Why is cold burn a problem? It, too, kills the healthy tissue and muscle cells under the burn site and then the burn site will need extra medical burn aid treatment that could have been avoided in the first place.

Cold burns Frostbite Chilblains

What Is The Best Ice Pack On The Market?

What is the best ice pack on the market? How long is a piece of string? You have to consider several factors when giving an answer to such an open question.

The country of origin: Different countries offer different brands and qualities, so naming one specific brand might not be accessible to everyone.

Cost of product: Your budget will be a factor in the brand you purchase.

Product bias: Some people only buy certain brands and refuse to believe that the cheap version is equally as good as the expensive version in some cases.

Planned usage: Your reason for needing an ice pack and the purpose will play a role. 

If you only need to for a single use, then you can buy the cheapest ice pack on the market and dispose it off once done. If you plan for it to be kept in your First Aid kit for regular or multiple uses, then it is better to spend the money to buy a high-quality product with a protective cloth cover that will last for years and not pierce easily, or rupture like the cheaper ones tend to do.

Two packs of gel-filled products can be purchased for under $20 in most discount stores. One should be kept in the freezer, ready to be applied when needed, and the other should be kept in the First Aid kit, ready to be heated should it be needed to relax a muscle or provide comfort for period pain.

Further Reading Material

This is the fifth article of six on How To Give Emergency First Aid.

The last article in this series of six articles is: How To Manage A Car Accident: Report The Road Crash.

Read the fourth article in this series called: Elbow Brace And Support: How To Fit It.