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Health Questions

Cryotherapy

Definition

Cryotherapy is a method of superfreezing tissue in order to destroy it. This article discusses cryotherapy of the skin.

Alternative Names

Cryosurgery - skin

Description

Cryotherapy is done using a cotton swab that has been dipped into liquid nitrogen or a probe that has liquid nitrogen flowing through it.

The procedure is done in the doctor's office. It usually takes less than a minute.

The freezing may cause some discomfort. Your health care provider may apply a numbing medicine to the area first.

Why the Procedure is Performed

Cryotherapy or cryosurgery may be used to:

  • Remove warts
  • Destroy precancerous skin lesions (actinic keratoses or solar keratoses)

Rarely, cryotherapy may be used to treat some skin cancers. However, skin that is destroyed during cryotherapy cannot be examined under a microscope. A skin biopsy is needed if your health care provider wants to check the lesion for signs of cancer.

Risks

Cryotherapy risks include:

  • Blisters and ulcers, leading to pain and infection
  • Scarring, especially if the freezing was prolonged or deeper areas of the skin were affected
  • Changes in skin color (skin turns white)

Outlook (Prognosis)

Cryotherapy works well for many patients. Some skin lesions, especially warts, may need to be treated more than once.

Recovery

The treated area may look red afterwards. A blister will often form within a few hours. It may appear clear or have a red or purple color.

You may have a little pain for up to 3 days.

Most of the time, no special care is needed during healing. The area should be washed gently once or twice a day and kept clean. A bandage or dressing should only be needed if the area rubs against clothes or may be easily injured.

A scab forms and will usually peel away within 1 to 3 weeks, depending on the area treated.

Call your health care provide if:

  • There are signs of infection such as redness, swelling, or drainage
  • The skin lesion does not appear to be gone after it has healed

References

Habif TP. Dermatologic surgical procedures. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 27.

Habif TP. Warts, herpes simplex, and other viral infections. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 12.

Beard JM, Osborn J. Common office procedures. In: Rakel RE,ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 28.


Review Date: 8/14/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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