How to apply a cold compress

How to apply a cold compress

How to Apply a Cold Compress

A cold compress is used to cool an injured area, which protects body tissue by slowing metabolic rate and reducing swelling around the injury. They are also frequently used to treat ocular allergies and to reduce swelling around the eyes and ocular itching. A cold compress can range from a cloth dipped in cold water to a commercially available pad or pouch that is made cold through freezing or chemical action. Commercial cold packs are often too cold for ocular use and should not typically be used for this purpose. Cold compresses are an important part of treating soft tissue injuries such as bruises and blunt trauma.

Steps for use for ocular conditions:

Prepare the compress. Make an ice pack by wrapping ice in a small towel or cloth, or by filling a plastic bag with ice. An ice pack can be used to reduce swelling and bruising in blunt trauma.

For ocular allergies a facecloth that is repeatedly soaked in cool or cold water is sufficient.

Never use compresses on any ocular trauma that could have caused an injury to the eye itself. Likewise, do not use a compress that is so cold that it causes discomfort.

Gently place the cold compress on the affected closed lids, making sure to completely cover the area.

Make sure that you keep a cloth or bandage between the cold compress and the patient’s skin (if you apply a homemade compress such as a bag of ice directly to the skin, it can cause frostbite.) When using a cold water compress, repeatedly re-soak the towel to keep it cool or cold.

Remove the cold compress after 20 minutes to prevent the skin from becoming frostbitten.

When used for swelling, reapply a cold compress after 2 hours. Alternate 20 minutes with the compress with 2 hours without the compress for 3 days or until the swelling completely subsides.

For ocular allergies use the compresses on an as needed basis for symptomatic relief.


Whenever we feel pain, our elders usually recommend using a hot or cold compress. You must have heard them quoting, “Hot and cold compress is important in managing pain due to musculoskeletal injuries” 1 Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J(2015) Source

But to understand when to use hot or cold compress procedure is a bit tricky as the reason of pain and the age of pain may differ. However, this question can be best answered if we can easily differentiate the types of injuries and the age of pain. So, let’s first understand what are the different types of pain that require heat or cold compress therapy .

Well! There are two types of pain. One is an acute pain, and the other is a chronic pain. An acute pain is a result of sudden trauma, which may include collision or fall. However, chronic pain is developed from an old injury, caused due to overuse of a body part. 2 Raffaeli, W., & Arnaudo, E. (2017, August 21) Source-PubMed

If you are still not clear about what is included in acute pain and chronic pain, then let’s try to dig into a bit more detail.


Whenever you hurt yourself, the injured area becomes inflamed, and the patient experiences redness, swelling, and pain in the affected area. The pain caused by such injuries is termed as acute pain. This type of pain remains for a maximum of five to six months 3 Johnson, Q., Borsheski, R. R., & Reeves-Viets, J. L. (2013) Source-PubMed . Physicians recommend using ice therapy in cases of acute pain.

How Does Cold Compress Help in Reducing Pain

Using ice on the affected part helps in narrowing the blood vessels, and thereby helps in reducing the blood flow to the affected area responsible for aggravating swelling and inflammation. Vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) decreases the metabolism in the affected area by controlling the blood flow. 4 Block, J. E. (2010, July 07) Source-PubMed

Brings more blood to the area where it is applied.

Reduces joint stiffness and muscle spasm, which makes it useful when muscles are tight.

Should NOT be used for the first 48 hours after an injury.

Types of warm packs or pads

Warm towel

Dampen a towel with warm (not scalding) water.

Put on the affected area to ease muscle spasm.

Heating pad

Be sure to protect any type of heating pad device from coming in direct contact with the skin. Precautions should be taken to avoid burns, especially if you have nerve damage, such as from diabetes or other health problems.

When muscles work, chemical byproducts are made that need to be eliminated. When exercise is very intense, there may not be enough blood flow to eliminate all the chemicals. It is the buildup of chemicals (for example, lactic acid) that cause muscle ache. Because the blood supply helps eliminate these chemicals, use heat to help sore muscles after exercise.

Eases pain by numbing the affected area.

Reduces swelling and inflammation.

Types of cold packs

Ice towel

Dampen a towel with cold water.

Fold it and place it in a plastic, sealable bag.

Place the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Remove from freezer and place it on the affected area.

Ice pack or cold compress

Put ice in a plastic, sealable bag.

Fill partially with water.

Seal the bag, squeezing the air out of it.

Wrap the bag in a damp towel and put it on the affected area.

When an injury or inflammation, such as tendonitis or bursitis occurs, tissues are damaged. Cold numbs the affected area, which can reduce pain and tenderness. Cold can also reduce swelling and inflammation.

You have likely heard you should use heat or cold when you develop a sports injury, but knowing when to appropriately use each one can make a world of difference in how fast you recover from your injury. Different types of injuries require different types of treatment.

Acute Sports Injuries

How to apply a cold compressAcute injuries are typically caused by trauma. Your injury may have been caused by a direct blow to the area, a fall, or an accidental twisting movement. These injuries cause severe and immediate pain.

Treat Short Term Injuries with Cold Compress

When you first receive an acute sports injury, you must control any swelling, inflammation, bleeding, and pain. Apply an ice compress to the injury as soon as possible. This will cool down the tissues, lower their metabolic rate and nerve conduction velocity, resulting in vasoconstriction of the surrounding blood vessels and reduced inflammation.

Apply ice to the injury, and make sure the ice remains in contact with the injury for at least 20 minutes, and then reapply the ice every two to three hours for the next 48 hours if possible. Always ensure you wrap the compress in a light towel to protect the skin from ice burns.

After 48 hours the injury will start it’s natural healing and remodelling process and stop bleeding. When the signs of inflammation diminish after three to five days of rest and cold treatment, you can then alternate between hot and cold treatments. Apply cold for 10 minutes, and immediately follow with 10 minutes of heat. This should result in a massive increase of blood flow to the injured site, as the vasoconstriction that occurred with cooling will reverse when heat is applied, allowing an influx of blood to flow to the damaged tissues and promote quicker healing.

If you are treating knee injuries, you’ll need to remove your knee braces before applying cold or hot treatment. If you have a knee brace for running or a hinged knee brace, you’ll need to leave it off for the duration of treatment.

Chronic Sports Injuries

How to apply a cold compress

Chronic sports injuries do not appear as suddenly as acute injuries do. Chronic injuries gradually build up over several days, weeks, or even longer. They are typically caused by overuse of a muscle or by a biomechanical abnormality. Some chronic injuries are caused by an acute injury that has failed to heal due to the absence of appropriate treatment and a return to training or competition too early.

Heat Compress is Ideal for Treating Chronic Injuries

For chronic injuries, apply a heat compress to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes. You can use a warm, damp towel, a hot water bottle, a heat rub, or a heating pad. If you use a heating pad or hot water bottle, place a layer of protection between your skin and the bottle or pad to prevent burns.

Using heat to treat chronic sports injuries will help soothe aching muscles and joints, relax tight muscles, increase blood flow to the injury to reduce stiffness and increase the elasticity of tendons and ligaments.

In general, heat therapy is also recommended prior to exercise for those who have chronic injuries. Heat warms the muscles and helps increase flexibility. The only time you should ever consider using cold to treat a chronic injury is after you are finished exercising when inflammation may reappear. Applying cold at this time helps reduce any residual swelling.

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  • What is ice therapy or ‘cold therapy’?
  • What is heat therapy?
  • Hot and cold therapy for osteoarthritis

Applying heat and ice to an injury are commonly-used methods to treat pain and reduce swelling. The scientific evidence behind their effectiveness is limited — but some people find it helps.

There is a lot of debate around which method works best as each one has a different approach to treating an injury.

If you’ve hurt your knee, or your knee joint is painful, it may help to understand what these treatments are and how they’re used, to help you choose which option may work best for you.

A specific trauma to your knee (acute injury) will be treated differently to a long-term knee condition (chronic injury).

What is ice therapy or ‘cold therapy’?

Ice has traditionally been used to reduce swelling caused by damage to the muscles, ligaments or tendons (soft tissue injury).

It’s believed that ice reduces the tissue temperature and blood flow to the area, which helps to limit the body’s response to the injury, reducing inflammation and bleeding. It can also numb the area, reducing any pain.

For this reason it is thought to be effective in treating new injuries that have acute pain and swelling.

How to treat your knee with cold therapy

If you decide to ice your knee you should do this as part of PRICE therapy, which stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation.

When using ice, you should apply it as soon as possible for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours during the day and for the first 48 to 72 hours.

During this time you should avoid heat, such as hot baths, saunas or heat packs, which may encourage bleeding.

After 48 to 72 hours the aim of any treatment changes from reducing bleeding and swelling to getting the tissues moving with exercise and stretching.

What is heat therapy?

Heat therapy is the application of heat to an injury, for example using a hot water bottle or heat pack (wheat bag). It increases the temperature of the tissue around the injury, which increases blood flow and circulation as well as the elasticity (flexibility) of the tissue.

One theory for why this works is that the increased blood flow to the damaged tissue can promote healing. It’s also thought that heat could provide pain relief and reduce muscle spasm as well as stiffness, by warming up muscles and making them more flexible.

Heat therapy is thought to be effective for long-term (chronic) injuries or ones that are not swollen.

How to treat your knee with heat therapy

If you decide to use heat to treat your knee, make sure the hot water bottle or heat pack is wrapped in a towel or other material to avoid burns and leave it on the site of your injury for 10-15 minutes. This can be repeated every 2 to 3 hours.

Heat may be helpful if your knee pain is the result of aching muscles from an injury caused by overuse.

Hot and cold therapy for osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is when cartilage around your joints wears down over time, causing pain and stiffness. If this occurs in the knee, it usually affects both knees, unless it’s the result of an injury.

There is some evidence that immersing yourself first in hot water, then ice water, then alternating between the two several times (contrast therapy) is an effective treatment for this kind of pain and discomfort.

This method of alternating is thought to improve circulation, decrease swelling and relieve pain in an injury.

Massaging the knee with ice could also help with osteoarthritis by improving muscle strength, reducing pain and decreasing any swelling.

But the body of evidence available is limited, so more research is needed to find out just how effective heat or cold treatments are for a knee injury.

How to apply a cold compress

Jul 29, 2020 · 4 min read

Everything from arthritis, pulled muscles, injuries to inflammation can be treated with hot and cold treatments. Either the cause of these is due to sitting for long hours at the desk or the injury caused after an intense workout session, any of these lead to discomfort in the area injured making you restless and this causes us to reach for either balms or pain reliever tablets to get some relief. And most of the time people forget the most appropriate way to recover fast from the injury, which is using hot and cold therapy wraps for treatment.

Tho u gh different injuries require different types of treatments hot and cold treatments are extremely effective and easily affordable. But the tricky part is deciding what situation calls for hot and what calls for cold treatments or compression on the area of concern. If the treatment is used correctly following an injury or before an exercise program, hot and cold can help the injury site with reduced pain, assist with fast healing, increasing flexibility, and controlling swelling as well. On the other hand, using incorrectly or for the wrong purpose, however, can aggravate your injury or worsen the condition or slow down the recovery at times.

Each method has its own separate mechanism for providing relief. Thermotherapy or heat therapy involves the use of heat to stimulate blood flow and circulation to the targeted area while reducing muscle tension and associated pain. On the other hand, cryotherapy also known as cold treatment involves exposing the injured area to cold temperatures, resulting in reducing blood supply in that area.

It is important to be careful when engaging in activities shortly after using hot or cold compression as it may affect muscle and nerve performance.

Given that both these treatments work differently, it depends upon the type of injury or pain when deciding which one is better suited to make you feel better.

Classifying treatments on the basis of injuries:

Acute injuries are typically caused due to sudden trauma, such as a fall or collision that has occurred within 48 hours. This injury might have been caused due to a sudden blow, fall, or accident resulting in a sprain. These are different from chronic injuries, that is the symptoms may include pain, tenderness, redness, warm skin, and swelling. But all this can be controlled with the help of cold treatment. Cold treatment or ice compression is most effective when it is applied early to the injury and often within 48 hours to help reduce swelling, control pain, or cool down the tissues.

How to Use Cold Treatment on Acute Injuries?

Apply cold compression to the injury and make sure that the affected area is in contact with the gel pack for at least 20 minutes. Cold treatment can be reapplied now and then or every two or three hours for the next 2 days or until the inflammation subsides.

Note that, there is always a light layer of cloth between the skin and the wrap to protect the skin from ice burns. Usually, if the injury is minor it will start to heal on its own.

The Signs of Inflammation have Diminished, What To Do?

In this case, alternating between hot and cold treatments may help in fast recovery as it will greatly increase the blood flow to the affected area. After giving the rest of three to five days of cold treatment, you can alternate between heat and cold.

Apply cold for a few minutes and then immediately switch to heat for a few minutes. Using a therapy pack can be helpful to achieve this easily, and can result in a massive increase of blood flow to the damaged area and promote quicker healing.

Chronic injuries are quite different from acute injuries, these usually develop or gradually develop when a body part is being overused or an acute injury is left untreated. Treating these kinds of injuries can take several days, weeks, or even longer. Chronic injury can be constantly bothersome and can come and go in the form of soreness or dull pain. As mentioned, some chronic injuries can also be caused by an acute injury that has failed to heal, or due to constant training and physical activities, there can be an absence of appropriate treatment. For these injuries, heat therapy is used, even prior to any exercise to decrease muscle tension and increase flexibility.

How to Use Heat Compress or Heat Treatment for Chronic Injuries?

Heat compress can be used on injured areas for 15 to 20 minutes. It is recommended to have a protective layer between your skin and the heating pack or hot water bottle to prevent burns.

This can help to soothe constant aches, muscles, and joints, increase the blood flow to the injured area to reduce stiffness and increase elasticity to relax the tight muscles. Unlike cold treatment, heat therapy has the most benefits when used for a good amount of time.

Note that, when you have moderate or severe pain, heat treatment is best for relieving those muscle tension.

Hot and cold therapy is one of the best methods to relieve any kind of pains. Choosing between which therapy to use can be mind boggling to anyone who is searching for a quick relief for their pain. People need to differentiate between the two to be able to find out what treatment is the best for your pain. You need to know its effect and its mechanics on how it can relieve pain. The most important thing above all is to know when to apply both of this treatment.

Hot compress is the application of heat to any part of the body to relieve certain kinds of pain. It can be applied in many kinds or forms such as hot water, hot towel heating pads, deep heating rubs, and ultrasound. All of these tools can help in applying hot compress to your affected part. On the other hand, ice is used for cold compress, it can also relieve pain. Cold compress can reduce both swelling and pain in the affected area of the body. In cases such as pulled muscles and strains cold compress is very useful.

Both of these treatments can only offer short term relief but it is very helpful for people who are experiencing different kind of pain. Sometimes pains can occur many times and these treatments can eliminate the pain quickly. Continuous application of hot and cold compress can increase blood circulation that can result in good health. The required time for this hot and cold compress is only 20 minutes, but it can be used more often if needed until swelling and pain diminish.

People should be careful not to overdo ice compresses because they can cause frostbite. Similarly, application of hot compress should not be more than 20 minutes because it can overheat the tissue on the affected part of your body. You need to observe a two to four hours interval before using the same therapy again.

Hot and cold compresses can both shock the tissues and the blood vessels on the affected area due to sudden change of temperature. The affected part will be flooded by more white blood cells to fight the infection. But in this process, the circulation of the blood’s red cells in the affected area is blocked by the white blood cells. As you all know, red blood cells carry oxygen that is needed for the normal functioning of each cell. In this case, accumulation of spasms spread through the other parts of the body especially through the leg area. The application of hot and cold compresses can increase blood circulations that carry the oxygen. The hot and cold sensation relaxes the nerves that can trigger the pain signal to the brain.

Hot and cold compresses are both very beneficial if they are used properly on the affected area. It is better to always consult a doctor to accompany the treatment with medication for faster treatment of any pain. Hot and cold are both needed for the body to maintain its normal functions. Homeostasis inside the body is maintained by the equilibrium of hot and cold temperature.

How to apply a cold compress

By: Dani Roche

The stinging, itching, burning sensation, and all-around general discomfort are something that everyone who experiences cold sores is all too familiar with. Often referred to as ‘fever blisters’, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and are a reality for around 50-80% of the United States population so if you’re currently dealing with one; it’s pretty likely that you’re not alone [1].

Although there is currently no cure for the herpes virus which causes cold sores, the cold sore itself will typically heal in around 2-4 weeks. However, as anyone who has dealt with a cold sore will know, it can be particularly uncomfortable to deal with so thankfully, there are treatment options that may help speed up the healing process.

Buy an At-Home Herpes Test

How do you get rid of a cold sore fast?

A cold sore usually starts with a tingling, itching, or burning sensation, and over a short period of time, small fluid-filled blisters will begin to appear. While these blisters are more often than not seen around the lip area, they can actually appear anywhere on the face. And while some people might get a few every year, some may experience one and never have another.

Cold sores are extremely common and according to the Mayo Clinic, they usually clear up themselves without the help of treatment in 2-4 weeks [2]. Still, there are a number of steps you can take towards treating a cold sore outbreak and speeding up the healing process.

Antiviral medications

If your symptoms are severe and the cold sore hasn’t cleared up within two weeks, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider. They will usually be able to diagnose the cold sore by taking a close look at it or with a blood test and they will recommend treatment options based on a number of different factors; including your age, medical history, and your tolerance for specific medications [3].

There are a number of different prescription antiviral medications that they may recommend, including:

  • Acyclovir
  • Famciclovir
  • Valacyclovir
  • Penciclovir

Home remedies

There are plenty of home remedies you can try out to help treat your cold sore that can potentially shorten the healing time of the cold sore and ease the general discomfort that comes along with it.

Over-the-counter treatments

Mayo Clinic recommends the over-the-counter ointment Abreva which can potentially speed up the healing process of the cold sore [4]. There are also other creams you can get from your local pharmacy that contain a drying agent that should help with treating it.

Don’t forget to use a cotton swab to apply any ointment or creams to the cold sore to avoid it spreading to other parts of the body.

Cold sores are often triggered by stress, fatigue, or fever, which is why simply taking it easy and relaxing is one of the best things you can do. Put your feet up and apply a cold compress to help reduce redness and promote healing – or opt for a warm compress if the blisters are causing you pain. Lip balms containing lemon balm may also reduce redness and any swelling.

If the discomfort is particularly difficult to deal with, try over-the-counter pain relievers; ask your pharmacist for the best recommendation.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and while the herpes virus cannot be cured, if you experience cold sores and/or are sexually active; it’s always good to know more! This can be done with an at-home lab test.

LetsGetChecked’s at-home Herpes Test can detect herpes simplex antibodies for either HSV-1 or HSV-2. Online results will be available within 5 days and our dedicated medical team will be there to offer a helping hand should you have any questions.

You should consider taking the test if:

  • You become sexually active
  • You have had unprotected sex
  • You are experiencing symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection
  • You are entering into a new sexual relationship
  • You have received a notification from a previous partner that they are infected (STIs can remain dormant for years and/ or take up to three weeks to become detectable.)