Cryosurgery is the process of destroying a skin cancer (lesion) by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the lesion using a cotton applicator stick or an aerosol spray.
The skin may first be numbed with a local anesthetic. The liquid nitrogen is applied or sprayed onto the cancer and the immediate surrounding tissue. The application may be repeated. An antibiotic dressing may be applied to the wound.
Cryosurgery is often used to destroy precancerous skin lesions such as actinic keratoses but is rarely used alone (monotherapy) to treat skin cancer.
An area where skin tissue has been destroyed by freezing with liquid nitrogen usually heals in 3 to 6 weeks. After the procedure, keep the wound clean and dry. A scab will form over the area.
Cryosurgery is done to destroy skin cancer if:
- This is the first time a skin cancer has developed in that specific area (primary lesion).
- There are multiple skin cancers that need to be destroyed.
- You have a bleeding disorder.
- You can't, or don't want to, use another procedure to remove a skin cancer.
Cryosurgery is used more often for precancerous growths such as actinic keratoses than for skin cancer.
Cryosurgery is the treatment of choice for superficial actinic keratoses. And it often is successful in treating small lesions of squamous cell carcinoma in situ.1
If cryosurgery is used to treat skin cancer, there is a small chance that the skin cancer will return after treatment. One study that followed people for 5 years after treatment found that cryosurgery had a cure rate for 99 out of 100 people.2
The risks of cryosurgery include:
- Scarring, including a white spot (hypopigmentation).
- Pain or stinging during and after the procedure.
- A longer recovery time than other procedures that remove skin cancers.
- Habif TP (2010). Premalignant and malignant nonmelanoma skin tumors. In Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy, 5th ed., pp. 801–846. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier.
- Carucci JA, et al. (2012). Basal cell carcinoma. In LA Goldman et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1294–1303. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Amy McMichael MD - Dermatology