What is Bell’s palsy?
Bell’s palsy is a condition that partly or completely paralyzes the side of your face. In rare cases, both sides of your face may be affected. Bell’s palsy occurs when your facial nerve is damaged. The facial nerve carries signals for movement and taste and other information to and from your face. When this nerve is damaged, your face can’t get these signals to and from the brain. While it may seem scary at the time, Bell’s palsy usually doesn’t last long.
All of the causes of Bell’s palsy are not known. It may occur when a virus, such as herpes or the common cold, makes the facial nerve swell. The swollen nerve presses against the bone around it. This pressure can stop the nerve from working correctly.
How do I know whether I have Bell’s palsy?
If you have Bell’s palsy, you may have some of the symptoms listed below. Usually, these symptoms affect just one side of your face.
- Drooping or weakness that makes the face look lopsided
- Loss of facial expression
- Trouble eating or drinking
- Trouble speaking
- Total or partial loss of taste
- Ear pain
- Sensitivity to sound
- Inability to close your eye
- Dry eye
Bell’s palsy symptoms appear quickly, usually reaching their worst in a couple of days. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you whether or not you have Bell’s palsy.
Causes & Risk Factors
Who is at risk for Bell’s palsy?
While the causes of Bell’s palsy are not fully known, you may be more likely to get it if you are pregnant, are between 15 and 60 years of age, or have one of the following:
- Herpes simplex
- A common cold
- The flu
- Lyme disease
- HIV or another autoimmune disorder
Keep in mind that most of the time these conditions will not give you Bell’s palsy. The condition only affects about 1 in every 5,000 people.
Once you have had Bell’s palsy, you have a slight chance of getting it again.
Diagnosis & Tests
How does my doctor know whether I have Bell’s palsy?
There is no specific test to identify Bell’s palsy. Your doctor will probably ask questions about your symptoms and your medical history. Facial paralysis can also be caused by a stroke, a tumor or an injury, so your doctor will check to make sure that another condition is not causing your symptoms. You may need to have additional tests, such as an X-ray or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.
How is Bell’s palsy treated?
Bell’s palsy often goes away on its own within 1 or 2 months. Your chances of full recovery will be improved if you take a prescribed course (usually for 10 days) of steroid medication, usually for 10 days, that is started as early as possible.
At home, you can take simple steps to help your recovery. Remember to eat well and get plenty of rest so you can heal. Protect your eyes with sunglasses when you are outdoors. Be careful to keep your eyes moist, especially when you are working at a computer. Using eye drops to keep your eyes moist during the day and wearing an eye patch to keep your eye closed during the night may help.
Apply low heat, such as a gel pack or heating pad, to the affected area for pain and swelling as needed. You may try gently massaging the area as well. If you are experiencing severe pain, talk to your family doctor.
Your recovery time will depend on how badly your facial nerve is damaged. If it takes a long time to improve, you may have a few lasting effects. For example, you may have facial movements you can’t control, or your eyes may water or tear.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Am I at risk of having Bell’s palsy again? If so, can I help prevent it?
Will this condition go away? How long will I have symptoms.
Are there medicines that will treat Bell’s palsy?
Are there exercises I can do or lifestyle changes I can make that will improve symptoms?
Does having Bell’s palsy signify another health condition?
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff