Fire & Ice

You are getting something different today. That’s right – no flaming liberal progressive rants! I want you to know a too-secret first aid technique. Pay heed, friends, and either you or someone you care for may someday be spared pain and injury.

I am a fair-skinned fellow. I have never tanned appreciably, but I have had a number of excruciating sunburns. One particularly nasty sunburn was the result of a camping trip in mountains near Pasadena, California during college. When the chill morning air relented, I lay on my back to enjoy the warm, bright sky. I did not consider that altitude increases sunlight’s ultraviolet (sunburn-causing) strength. Later that day, after returning to school, my chest erupted in angry hues.

This sunburn was not the usual stinging nuisance. It was a second-degree burn, and it HURT. I resorted to the ‘remedies’ that most of us have tried: ointments, topical anaesthetics, etc. I rubbed and sprayed several things onto my insulted skin. The next day, that insulted skin started to fall off. I had added injury to the insult. It was a painful lesson that made me wary of sun exposure for many years.

Eventually, I repeated the mistake of severely burning my chest. I did not repeat the treatment from years before. I tried ice & water, mainly to relieve the pain. Incredibly, after a lengthy chilling, the pain stopped. The sunburn never blistered. As new skin grew, the old, sunburned skin flaked off – it looked like dandruff!

Other episodes have confirmed the efficacy of cold for treating burns. Even burns from direct heat can be treated. I have singed myself several times with soldering irons (a standard tool for Electronics Engineers) and flecks of molten solder. Such burns would normally blister (‘edematous swelling’) and become itchy or painful. Ice & water treatment has always alleviated the problem. It sometimes, with prompt application, effectively ‘heals’ the burn. That is, blistering and irritation (redness) are prevented, and the damaged skin remains attached until few skin has grown under it.

Here is the procedure:
1. Partially fill a sealable plastic bag with ice cubes and a little water.
2. Squeeze air from the bag and seal it.
3. Apply ice & water promptly after being burned.
4. Refresh the ice as it melts.
5. Keep ice & water on the burn until it starts to hurt MORE due to the discomfort of cold.
6. Keep ice & water on the burn a while longer, at least until the area is fully numbed.
7. If burn pain re-occurs, treat again.

Water is included with ice primarily to insure that the temperature is no lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder (freezer) temperatures can be painful and possibly harmful. Water also spreads the cold between and beyond the ice cubes. Ice & water will not freeze tissue. The body delivers a lot of heat (especially via blood flow) that keeps tissue above freezing. The skin will get pretty darn cold, though. It will melt a lot of ice during treatment.

Air is removed from the bag of ice & water to allow it to lay against the treated area. Towels may be used to support the bag in position, as long as they do not get between the bag and the treated area.

Prompt application is very important. Much damage from low-grade burns is caused not by the burn, but by the body’s response to injury. This inflammatory response moves body fluids to the injury, causing blistering that separates the skin from its supporting tissues. Many other elements of the inflamatory response that are valid for infection are harmful for burns. Cold and several medications reduce the inflammatory response. NSAIDs – Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory – over-the-counter Drugs are examples.


1. Rub affected skin – even to apply lotion.
2. Apply anything (some lotions and anaesthetics) containing alcohol.
3. Insulate ice & water bag with anything thicker than a T-shirt.
4. Depend on any treatment for severe burns without seeking medical help.


1. Chill the burn immediately.
2. Chill using sealed bags of ice & water.
3. Apply ice & water at least until skin is fully numbed.
4. Take anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medications that are safe for you.
These may include aspirin and other NSAIDs.
5. Take analgesics such as acetaminophen if needed until treatment relieves pain.
6. Wear soft, loose clothing (if needed) over the burned area.
7. Continue ice & water treatment while seeking medical help for severe burns.

A similar treatment for soft tissue injury is known as RICE. This acronym stands for ‘Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation’. It is somewhat different from burn treatment. Soft tissue injury requires less chilling – the injured tissue needs good circulation, which chilling reduces. Please consult RICE guidelines and seek medical help for soft tissue injuries such as bruises.

4 Responses to “Fire & Ice”

  1. August 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    “You also scare me.”

    That’s what I love to hear!

  2. 2 Jim
    August 14, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Jim one, you must be right about elderly folks not getting enough sunlight. People living in northern latitudes (Scandinavia, et al.) can have Vitamin D deficiency even if they get out in that relatively feeble sunlight.

    The military certainly has LOTS of experience with treating burns. I suppose from your comments that the military doesn’t use ice & water any more than does civilian medical personnel.

    Kaje, you are a better man than I am! I hope that you’ve healed well from this latest burn. You also scare me.

  3. August 14, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I wish I knew this prior to last week, when I tried spray-on lotion for the first time (Result? Did not work) . The worst part about sun burn, for me, is not the burn itself but rather the stinky, gummy-feeling aloe vera you have to smear on. Hate that stuff.

    However, I have discovered another medicinal home use for ice: as a numbing agent for DIY mole removal. All you need is an ice cube, nail clippers and courage.

  4. August 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Jim too,

    I have been aware of the treatment you describe for a long time. I think I came by it just as you did, by learning from mistakes. It is amazing to me that this treatment is not widely taught, so you are doing a valuable public service with this post.

    When I was a boy the common wisdom was that getting sun on bare skin was good for you and a good tan was a sign of health. I was encouraged to take my shirt off in the summer and get one of those “good tans”. I can remember several sunburns that resulted in blisters. The home remedy at the time was to apply a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. I think that cured it in 7 days instead of it taking a week (placebo).

    In my late 60’s I had a growth just above the earlobe in one ear. It kept getting worse, so I went to the sawbones. Squamous cell carcinoma. He cut it out and replaced it with a chunk of skin from my neck. So far, it’s doing fine – just feels a little funny to the touch.

    I am convinced that the primary cause of osteoporosis in both men and women is a deficiency of sunlight on the skin. UV light of course is the primary source of useful vitamin D in the body. Consider, if you will, that many elderly people start to avoid the outdoors as they age. How many people in rest-homes get sunlight every day? It correlates. The moral: you need just the right amount of UV, but not excessive UV. Common sense. Benjamin Franklin probably knew it too.

    Thanks again for your post. Well presented.

    Jim one

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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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