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Cryosurgery for Skin Conditions: How Does It Work?

Flo asked Holly Singletary, certified dermatologist and a member of Flo Medical Board, three questions to learn about cryosurgery as a treatment option for common skin conditions. Get to know the basics of this treatment below.

Interview has been edited for clarity.

What is cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery is the use of extremely cold temperatures to treat tissue abnormalities.

Dr. Holly Singletary says that dermatologists use liquid nitrogen stored in an insulated canister to treat many types of benign skin growths, precancerous lesions, and even superficial skin cancers: “We apply the liquid nitrogen through a nozzle on the insulated canister, or we use a cotton-tipped applicator dipped in liquid nitrogen and apply it directly to the lesion being treated. The extreme cold temperatures freeze the skin cells, and as they thaw, the cells break apart, facilitating the removal of the lesion.” 

What are common uses for cryosurgery?

Depending on the amount of sun exposure you’ve had and your medical and family medical history, you may want to visit a dermatologist for a comprehensive full-body skin check.

Dr. Singletary says that during this skin exam, dermatologists look for any lesions that could be precancerous, abnormal moles, and skin cancer. Additionally, during this exam, patients have the opportunity to point out lesions they would like removed even though they’re benign because they’re causing discomfort or irritation. 

“There are several ways to remove skin lesions, and cryosurgery is one of the most common and easily accessible options,” says Dr. Singletary.

“Depending on the size and location of the lesion, it is treated for a few seconds and allowed to thaw. This may be repeated for 2–3 cycles. After treating the lesion with liquid nitrogen, the patient can expect the lesion to turn slightly pink to red, swell, and over the next few days, develop into a crust that will fall off in about 5–14 days.” 

Cryosurgery quote

Dr. Singletary says that they also use cryotherapy to treat verruca vulgaris (common warts).

“This is often used in combination with other treatment modalities and can effectively treat warts in just a few monthly sessions. This destructive method sends the immune system into action to help the body rid the wart from the skin. Warts often take multiple treatment sessions for removal.”

She says that cryotherapy is also often used for precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses. These are slightly pink, roughly textured growths that may be tender to the touch. They are most commonly present in sun-exposed surfaces of middle-aged to older people.

“Actinic keratosis has a risk of turning into skin cancer, so treatment is recommended to prevent the need for potentially more invasive therapies in the future.” 

Cryotherapy is sometimes also used as a treatment option for patients with superficial skin cancers who are not candidates for conventional surgery, according to Dr. Singletary. 

Is cryosurgery popular or rarely used?

Dr. Singletary confirms that cryotherapy is indeed a commonly used treatment in dermatology.

“We use this minimally invasive treatment option many times throughout the day for the removal of benign skin lesions such as growths, skin tags, and warts, as well as for precancerous and malignant skin lesions. It has very effective and reliable results with minimal side effects or downtime.”