Approximately 1 in 5,000 people develop Bell’s palsy, also known as facial palsy, each year. It is classified as a relatively rare condition.
It’s typically a temporary condition that will resolve on its own, although this can take a considerable amount of time, generally measured in a time frame of several weeks to months.
“It is a dysfunction of one of your facial nerves. As far as risk, everybody is at risk for this. It is primarily found in adults. It doesn’t matter age or gender, but we are all at risk for Bell’s palsy,” said Corpus Christi Medical Center emergency room assistant medical director Dr. Kelly Campbell.
Rarely, Bell’s palsy can recur. Signs and symptoms of Bell’s palsy can come on suddenly.
“Tell tell signs of Bell’s palsy include facial drooping on one side, drooling on one side of the mouth, the inability to close your eye. You can have differences in the way you taste, you can have tongue numbness. But mostly, it’s the facial drooping on one side with the inability to close your eye, and having a watery eye and drooling,” said Campbell.
The first reaction of many individuals suffering these symptoms is that they are having a stroke.
“The thing is to be careful of is not to think that you have facial palsy until a doctor tells you that you have a facial palsy because it can often mimic a stroke. So if you have acute drooping of your face, if you have problems closing one eye, if you have any of these problems, you really need to see a doctor to tell the difference between a facial nerve palsy and a stroke,” said Campbell.
This disease affects approximately 40,000 Americans each year, and nobody knows exactly what causes it.
“Some of the causes of the facial palsy or Bell’s palsy are virus; these include the herpes virus which is also causes cold sores, hand foot and mouth disease, mumps, measles, all kinds of viruses can cause this. What we do to treat it when it first starts in the first 48 hours, we give you steroids, which will help decrease inflammation and shorten the length of time to resolve this palsy,” said Campbell.
In very rare cases, Bell’s palsy can affect both sides of the face.
When to see a doctor:
Seek immediate medical help if you experience any type of paralysis because you may be having a stroke. Bell’s palsy is not caused by a stroke, but it can cause similar symptoms.
See your doctor if you experience facial weakness or drooping to determine the underlying cause and severity of the illness.
The nerve that controls your facial muscles passes through a narrow corridor of bone on its way to your face. In Bell’s palsy, that nerve becomes inflamed and swollen — usually related to a viral infection. Besides facial muscles, the nerve affects tears, saliva, taste and a small bone in the middle of your ear.
Bell’s palsy occurs more often in people who:
- Are pregnant, especially during the third trimester, or who are in the first week after giving birth
- Have an upper respiratory infection, such as the flu or a cold
- Have diabetes
Recurrent attacks of Bell’s palsy are rare. But in some of these cases, there’s a family history of recurrent attacks — suggesting a possible genetic predisposition to Bell’s palsy.
A mild case of Bell’s palsy normally disappears within a month. Recovery from a more severe case involving total paralysis varies. Complications may include:
- Irreversible damage to your facial nerve
- Abnormal regrowth of nerve fibers, resulting in involuntary contraction of certain muscles when you’re trying to move others (synkinesis) — for example, when you smile, the eye on the affected side may close
- Partial or complete blindness of the eye that won’t close due to excessive dryness and scratching of the clear protective covering of the eye (cornea)