Hot or Cold Compress…Which Do I Use for What?

hot or cold compress

We’ve all been bruised, sore, swollen, feverish, or achy at one point or another. But it can be tricky remembering how to treat different aches, pains, and ailments. Do you apply a hot or cold compress to a swollen ankle? What about for a swollen lip, a migraine, or a fever? Here are the general rules of first aid care brought to you by Hospitality Health ER.

When to Use a Hot or Cold Compress

Cold Compresses are best for sprains and swelling. So if you have a swollen ankle, knee, lip, or eye, try applying an ice or cold pack for the next 48 hours to help the blood vessels constrict and decrease the swelling. Bug bites are also best treated with cold compresses because they typically involve swelling.

Dilated blood vessels in the head are a chief trigger for migraine pain and vascular headaches, so you want to opt for a cool not warm towel on the head. This will help the blood vessels return to their normal state, which will ultimately ease the pain you’re feeling. For burns, avoid applying too cold of a compress to the affected area because it can slow down healing by cutting off the blood supply to the area. Instead, use cool water initially, then switch to slightly warm water to allow blood to circulate. Cold sponging can also be a good supplement to acetaminophen or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication when trying to reduce a fever.

Warm Compresses are best for recurring pain like stiff joints or chronic soreness. Applying heat helps transport blood full of oxygen and nutrients, which can help the affected area heal faster. Unlike migraines, tension headaches may respond better to a warm compress, which can help loosen up tight jaw or neck muscles. Warm compresses are also good for certain arthritis pains, but arthritis pain that involves burning sensations may be relieved better with a cold compress.

How to Use a Hot or Cold Compress

  • Use moderate temperatures to treat the area. Avoid extreme cold or heat. If you need to use ice, wrap it in a towel before placing it on your skin. The same is true for heat.  Make sure you put a barrier between your skin and the heat or cold source.
  • Apply heat or cold for only 15-20 minutes at a time.
  • Do not apply cold or warm compresses to open wounds or irritated skin.
  • Do not use cold compresses if you have circulatory problems.

To learn more about first aid care, read Hospitality Health ER’s blogs on how to treat migraine pain, sunburns, and burns.