What Is Cryotherapy?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on March 09, 2024
3 min read

Cryotherapy is also called cryosurgery or cryoablation. It’s when doctors use freezing cold temperatures to kill abnormal cells or small tumors. The cold comes from liquid nitrogen or argon gas.

This treatment only damages the cells exposed to the cold. Doctors can do it as many times as needed to get rid of a problem area.

Cryotherapy destroys precancerous cells. These are cells that aren’t normal, but they haven’t turned into cancer yet. If you kill them early, you may keep them from turning into cancer later on.

Doctors can also use it to treat certain kinds of cancer, including in the prostate, liver, and bones.

Sometimes doctors use cryotherapy to remove skin growths that aren’t harmful, such as skin tags, warts, and angiomas. It can remove freckles and tattoos, too.

The type of cryotherapy you get depends on whether the cells it’s targeting are inside or outside your body.

For those on the outside, your doctor may spray the cold gas right on the area. Or they may wipe it with the cold liquid to destroy the cells. This method can treat precancers on your skin.

Cryotherapy can also treat changes in cells in a woman’s cervix that might become cancer, often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Doctors can find these changes during routine Pap smears or pelvic exams. Your doctor will use a hollow tube called a cryoprobe to send cold gas to the cells. Small tumors in the body can also be treated this way.

Your doctor might use a cryoprobe during an endoscopy. This is when they put a long, thin tube with a light and camera on the end into your body to look for problems. The tube can go in through a natural opening, like your mouth or bottom. Or your doctor may make a small cut in your skin to put it in. Either way, the endoscope lets your doctor see the problem area or tumor on a screen so they can touch it with the cryoprobe.

When the cryoprobe delivers the cold, an ice ball forms and freezes the nearby cells. Your doctor may thaw and freeze the area more than once during the procedure. Because of this, and depending on the size and location of the area, it can take a few minutes or up to a few hours to get cryotherapy.

Your doctor will remove the probes when treatment is done.

After the procedure, the frozen tissue thaws and your body’s immune system cleans up the dead cells on its own.

If you get the cold on an outside surface of your body, a scab forms. You can cover a treated area on your skin with a bandage.

Side effects depend on the part of your body that was treated. They may be less severe than those you might have after other treatments, like surgery or radiation.

For instance, cryotherapy to treat cervix cell changes can cause bleeding, cramps, and pain.

On your skin, there may be swelling and redness. The area may blister and hurt while it heals. Rarely, it may cause scarring, hair loss, or white skin in that area.

Cryotherapy that treats tumors inside the body may damage or scar nearby healthy tissue. Your doctor will try to avoid that as much as possible.