Liquid Nitrogen Treatment (Cryotherapy)

Overview

Liquid nitrogen is a chemical that is used to remove abnormal tissue on the skin or inside the body. Liquid nitrogen is extremely cold at around minus 328°F (minus 200°C). After we apply a small amount of liquid nitrogen to the abnormal cells, the frozen tissue dries up and falls off. Liquid nitrogen is used only to treat abnormal or cancerous tissue at a single site and not throughout your body.

The method of using liquid nitrogen to destroy abnormal or diseased tissue is called cryotherapy or cryosurgery. We frequently use it to remove precancerous spots on your skin, as well as warts and other abnormal skin growths. We might also use this treatment to remove tumors inside of your body, especially if we are not able to remove the tumor with surgery.

In the clinic, we administer liquid nitrogen by spraying it from a canister or by applying it with a cotton-tipped swab. A blister forms where the liquid nitrogen comes into contact with your skin. The blister then dries out and falls off within 1 to 2 weeks.

You will feel some stinging or burning for a few minutes at the site where we apply the liquid nitrogen. This area of your skin might continue to be tender for a few days after treatment.

Common uses

Liquid nitrogen is applied to destroy abnormal cells on your skin. For instance, we may use liquid nitrogen to remove skin tumors, moles, precancerous or cancerous growths, skin tags, sun spots, and clusters of tissue (nodules). We might also use liquid nitrogen to remove unattractive freckles or other spots on the skin.

Liquid nitrogen is also used to treat abnormal cells inside the body, especially if the tumor cannot be surgically removed. For instance, we might use liquid nitrogen to destroy a cancerous tumor in the eye (retinoblastoma) or a growth in an internal organ such as the liver, kidney, or lungs. It may also be applied to treat tumors in the breast, cervix, prostate, and bones.

How to Prepare

We typically apply the liquid nitrogen treatment to your skin in our clinic. The procedure takes only a few minutes, and no preparation is usually required.

If you are concerned about the temporary burning or stinging pain associated with this treatment, you can take ibuprofen (Advil) about 30 minutes before your appointment. If the growth is large or deep, we might prescribe a course of antibiotics to reduce your risk of getting an infection. When the procedure is more involved, you should also ask a friend or relative to drive you home from the procedure.

Surgery

Before we use liquid nitrogen to destroy a deep growth or abnormal tissue inside your body, be sure to let us know all medications and herbal supplements that you are currently taking. We may recommend a temporary adjustment to your daily medications. For example, if you take a blood thinner, we may advise you to stop taking it for a few days before and after the procedure.

You may need to stay in the hospital overnight if we remove a deep tumor from your skin or if we must perform surgery to access the growth to apply the liquid nitrogen.

How it is Performed

Liquid nitrogen is typically applied using a cotton swab or a spray canister when treating growths on the outside of your body. We apply the liquid nitrogen to the top layer of your skin growth. The liquid nitrogen instantly freezes the growth and a little bit of the tissue surrounding the growth.

You may feel burning or stinging while we apply the liquid nitrogen and for a few minutes after. The surrounding skin may swell and turn red. A blister forms over the growth and surrounding skin within 3 to 6 hours after we apply the liquid nitrogen. The blister might bleed a little and turn dark purple or black, which is normal. The blister flattens within 2 to 3 days and should fall off within 2 to 3 weeks.  

You may need several treatments with liquid nitrogen to completely remove an abnormal growth or tissue.

If we treat a deep growth or apply liquid nitrogen during surgery, we may use medical imaging equipment, such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT scans, during the procedure to help us locate the growth. We may apply the liquid nitrogen with a thin wand attached to a large canister or by using a needle to inject the liquid nitrogen into the growth.

After Your Procedure

Unless we instruct you otherwise, it is best to leave the blister uncovered. It is okay to cover it with a bandage for a few days if the area is especially tender.

Do not attempt to remove the blister before it falls off on its own. You may develop a scar or an infection as a result. While it is okay to gently wash the area with mild soap and warm water, do not soak the blister in water for at least 24 hours after we’ve applied liquid nitrogen. This means you should avoid taking a long bath, doing dishes if the blister is on your hand, and swimming for the first 24 hours.

If the blister is especially tender or it continues to sting or burn, take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce pain.

While the blister is present and after it falls off, be sure to wear sunscreen or protect the area from sun exposure so that it heals properly.

When to Call Us

If you continue to experience discomfort, pain, or burning or if the blister doesn’t fall off when expected, let us know. If you develop signs of infection, such as fever, swelling, tenderness, and oozing from the site, call to schedule an appointment.

If we treated a skin lesion with liquid nitrogen and the lesion is still present after 2 to 3 weeks, be sure to let us know. We may need to reapply the liquid nitrogen to some lesions, such as warts and areas of rough, raised skin that may be precancerous (actinic keratosis).


If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following:
(1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder.

This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.