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How Do I Choose the Best Instant Cold Pack?

By Elizabeth West
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Choosing the best instant cold pack is usually a matter of knowing your options and having a defined sense of why you want the product in the first place. The sort of pack you’ll want to treat an injury that has just happened is often a different consideration than the sort of pack to put in a first-aid kit or to travel with in case of future need, for instance. Sometimes a homemade compress may be best, while in other situations a commercial product — perhaps even one with characters or fanciful colors if intended for a child — may be superior. A lot depends on the circumstances. In general, the most common commercial options can be divided into two categories: those that are designed to be stored at room temperature and then activated to make them cold, and those that must be kept in the freezer or refrigerator. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and choosing the best one for you often requires a bit of research and planning.

Benefits of Icing Generally

For sprains, strains, and minor bruising, the recommended first aid is usually rest, ice, compression, and elevation — often remembered by the acronym "RICE." Instant packs are a great stand-in for conventional ice bags when these sorts of injuries happen. They're portable, convenient and clean, and in most cases won’t even leave condensation behind them. Athletes often like to have cold packs readily available in case of injury, and most parents keep them on hand, too, to ease the bumps and scrapes that are so often a part of growing up.

Think About How You’ll Use It

Deciding how you want to use your pack and why you want it in the first place are usually the most important questions when it comes to framing your search. The central question underlying both is where you intend to keep the pack.

Gel packs that stay in the freezer until needed are often the most effective when it comes to delivering consistent, long-lasting cold, and they’re also reusable, which can make them more economical in the long run. They have to be on hand when needed, though; these don’t pack well for use away from home. Chemically-activated pouches and sachets are usually best in these circumstances. There are often more choices amongst these products, and options usually also come in many different shapes and sizes. Their lifespan is often more limited, they are hardly ever reusable, they don’t usually stay cold for very long once activated. Weighing your individual pros and cons can help make the choice easier.

Chemically-Activated Pouches

A chemically activated instant cold pack fits easily into a gym bag or first aid kit, which makes it much more portable than a gel pack that must be kept in a freezer. For quick treatment of injuries that occur where no freezers are nearby, such as many places where outdoor activities are held, chemical pouches are likely to be your best choice. Inside this type of cold pack's tough plastic outer envelope are two pouches containing either ammonium nitrate or ammonium chloride and water. You squeeze the pack to break the inner pouches and shake to mix them together. This produces a chemical reaction that causes the pack to become cold. Th

This sort of pack typically stays cold for between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the brand, and can be used only once. Although first aid experts advise putting a barrier between the skin and an ice pack to prevent frostbite, most instant packs do not get cold enough to require this. Users should read the directions on the package to make sure, however, and should also be careful not to let the packs get punctured or otherwise damaged. The chemicals used in the reaction can be very caustic when exposed to the skin, and for this reason most manufacturers don’t recommend that children be allowed to use these products unsupervised.

Purchase Considerations

Discount stores usually stock instant cold packs in the first aid section near the splints and braces. They cost very little and can be bought in bulk online. They are a good choice for companies, schools and individuals looking for a fast, non-messy way to provide cold therapy.

Gel Options

For injuries that will require repeated applications of ice, a gel pack may more suitable. Gel cold packs are reusable but need to be refrigerated or frozen before use. They might not be practical if you have no way to cool them, and they cost a bit more than the instant variety. A gel pack is usually bigger than a chemically activated instant cold pack and fits over a larger area of the body. Some of them can also be warmed in the microwave for heat therapy, doubling their usefulness.

Considerations for Children

Some companies sell cold packs with cartoon characters or animals printed on them that are designed to appeal to children. A familiar and beloved character might help comfort a distressed child, and can be calming. These sorts of packs can be a great choice to keep on hand if you are a parent or a youth sports coach.

Homemade Alternatives

Cold packs are also fairly easy to make at home. The simplest option is usually a bag of frozen vegetables or ice, but this can be messy and wasteful. A homemade recipe for a reusable instant cold pack calls for mixing one part isopropyl alcohol, also called rubbing alcohol, with two parts water. It can then be frozen in a zip-top plastic bag. The alcohol will prevent the water from freezing completely, allowing the pack to remain flexible.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Dec 29, 2013

My husband is a teacher at a martial arts school and he uses these all the time. He buys them in packs of 24 and stores them at the school for injuries. They work great and cost little considering the quantity and quality.

Adults should supervise children with these though because they could accidentally damage the packaging and cause the chemicals to ooze out. At the martial arts school, only teachers are allowed to apply these.

It's actually a good thing that these are one-time use only, because who's going to deal with reheating them?

By SarahGen — On Dec 29, 2013

@fBoyle-- Actually, there is a type of instant pack that can be reused. You have to squeeze it to activate it. After you're done using it, you can boil the pack in water to "reset" it. When you need to use it again, you squeeze it like usual.

But I don't remember if this is an instant heat pack or a cold pack. I think it was a heat pack. I'm not sure if it's chemically possible to do this for a cold compress. But if it is, it should be available at the pharmacy.

By fBoyle — On Dec 28, 2013

I like instant ice packs and I've used them before but they're not the most cost efficient. I wish there was a gel cold pack that could be used at any time like the instant ones, and that could be reused. It would be the best of both worlds.

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