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Bell’s palsy

3-minute read

If you are experiencing facial paralysis call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department.

What is Bell’s palsy?

Bell’s palsy is a sudden weakness or paralysis in one side of the face. It is caused by inflammation or damage to the facial nerve. It is usually temporary — most people start to get better in 2 weeks and are fully recovered in 3 to 6 months. A few people don’t recover fully and are left with some weakness or paralysis of the muscles in their face.

What are the symptoms of Bell’s palsy?

The main symptom is weakness or paralysis of one side of the face. It is usually at its worst within 2 to 3 days after its first appearance. Bell's palsy can also cause:

  • a drooping eyelid or difficulty closing one eye
  • difficulty smiling and making facial expressions
  • drooping of one side of the mouth
  • difficulty eating and drinking
  • drooling
  • pain or sensitivity around the affected area
  • a headache
  • loss of taste
  • changes in the amount of tears or saliva

If you develop these symptoms, see your doctor immediately or go to your nearest emergency department.

An example of Bell's palsy
An example of Bell's palsy.

What causes Bell’s palsy?

A viral infection is thought to be the main cause of Bell's palsy.

The infection inflames or puts pressure on the nerve that controls the facial muscles. It can be mild, or it can be severe.

How is Bell’s palsy diagnosed?

There is no specific test for Bell’s palsy, but it is important to see a health professional if you have the symptoms so you can be sure you don’t have a more serious condition such as a stroke or a tumour.

Your doctor can diagnose the condition by examining you carefully. You may be referred to a specialist or have tests such as an x-ray or CT scan to rule out other causes.

How is Bell’s palsy treated?

To treat Bell's palsy, a doctor may prescribe oral steroids, or an antiviral medicine in the first few days of the onset of Bell’s palsy, as this can improve the chance of a full recovery.

They may also prescribe lubricating eye drops, an eye ointment to protect the affected eye and they may recommend physiotherapy or face massage.

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How can I best recover from Bell’s palsy?

You can help your recovery by:

  • using prescription eye drops and ointment regularly
  • wearing glasses or goggles during the day
  • using an eye patch or taping your eye shut if recommended

If the pain is bothering you, place a warm, damp washcloth over your face several times a day and take over-the-counter pain medication.

Resources and support

If you need to know more about Bell's palsy, or to get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Other languages

Do you prefer languages other than English? The Emergency Care Institute offers translated information about Bell's palsy.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2020

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