The facts you need to know about Bell's palsy

Bell's palsy is the most common cause of sudden weakness of one side of the face. It's caused by a problem with your facial nerve - a nerve which controls the movements of many of the muscles of your face. 

You wake up one morning and you find one side of your face just doesn't work. You can't smile; you can't close your eyelid. Do you panic? You wouldn't be normal if you didn't. Is it a stroke? Quite possibly not. Will life ever be the same again? Actually, there's a very good chance that within a few months this will all be just a bad memory

Bell's palsy is the most common cause of sudden weakness of one side of the face. It's caused by a problem with your facial nerve - a nerve which controls the movements of many of the muscles of your face. These muscles let you smile, frown, close your eyelids and your mouth. Fortunately, the symptoms usually settle by themselves within two to three months.

Bell's palsy is caused by inflammation around the facial nerve, which may be due to a viral infection. Possible culprits include the viruses which cause cold sores and chickenpox. These live on in your system after your initial bout of illness has gone and can emerge years later.

Who gets it?

Bell's palsy most commonly happens between the ages of 10 and 40, and men and women get it equally often. It's slightly more common in winter. You're at higher risk if you're pregnant or have diabetes, and possibly if other members of the family have been affected.

What are the symptoms?

Bell's palsy usually only affects one side of your face. It doesn't usually cause pain, although you may get aching round your ear for a few days. You may not be able to smile (your face will look lopsided if you do). Chewing food can be a problem, and you may find saliva and liquids dribbling from the affected side of your mouth as you can't close it fully. It can affect the muscles of your forehead as well, so you can't wrinkle it. You may also find it hard to close your eyelid completely, making you prone to watering, dryness and irritation of the eye. Your taste and hearing may be affected on one side, with increased sensitivity to sounds.

Your symptoms will usually start to improve within two to three weeks, and, in about three quarters of cases, have gone within a couple of months. It can take up to 12 months to recover, and a few people are left with permanent weakness on one side of the face, although this is often only mild.

What else could it be?

Many people with Bell's palsy worry - quite understandably - that they've had a stroke. However, in a stroke other parts of the face and body are often affected, while the forehead isn't. Less common causes include Lyme disease - a condition caused by tick bites - and very rarely a tumour. But don't panic! Your doctor will usually be able to exclude these with simple examination and possibly some tests.

Eye protection

Although Bell's palsy doesn't affect your eye directly, the delicate surface of your eye can get inflamed or infected if you can't close your eyelid fully to protect it. If your tear glands are affected, your eye can get dry, further increasing the risk of irritation. Your doctor may recommend an eye patch during the day; taping your eye shut at night; or eye drops or ointment to lubricate the surface of your eye. If your eye does become red and sore it may be infected, so see your GP to check if you need antibiotic drops.

Will medicines help?

A 10-day course of steroid tablets may speed up your recovery. However, they need to be started within two to three days of your symptoms starting, so see your doctor as soon as possible.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.