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
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
Cryosurgery is used more often for
precancerous growths such as
actinic keratoses than for skin cancer.
Cryosurgery is done to destroy skin cancer if:
- It 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
- You cannot, or do not want to, use another
procedure to remove a 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
- Pain or stinging during and after the
- A longer recovery time than other procedures that remove
Cryosurgery is an efficient
procedure if there are many skin cancers that need to be destroyed or
Cryosurgery wounds heal slowly and can be painful.
Cryosurgery destroys tissue, so there is no way to obtain a sample
(biopsy) for diagnosis.
Complete the surgery information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this surgery.
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.