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Bell’s palsy

6-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 on one side of your 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 on that side of their face.

What are the symptoms of Bell’s palsy?

The main symptom is weakness or paralysis of one side of your face. It is usually at its worst 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 movements
  • drooping of one side of your 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 swells) the nerve that controls your facial muscles. It can be mild, or it can be severe.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any symptoms of Bell’s palsy, it is important to see a health professional. This is to make sure that you don’t have a more serious condition such as a stroke or a tumour (cancer).

How is Bell’s palsy diagnosed?

There is no specific test for Bell’s palsy, but your doctor can diagnose the condition by examining you carefully.

Bell’s palsy is diagnosed by ruling out other causes of symptoms. For this, you may need further tests. You may be referred to a specialist if the diagnosis is unclear.

How is Bell’s palsy treated?

To treat Bell's palsy, your doctor may prescribe you medicines. Oral steroids, or an antiviral medicine can be taken in the first few days from the onset of Bell’s palsy. This can improve your chance of a full recovery.

They may also prescribe you lubricating eye drops or an eye ointment to protect your affected eye. Physiotherapy or face massage may also be recommended.

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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

If the pain is bothering you, there are some things you can do. Place a warm, damp washcloth over your face several times a day. You can take over-the-counter pain medication.

Can Bell’s palsy be prevented?

As the cause of Bell’s palsy is not fully understood, there are no guidelines for prevention.

Complications of Bell’s palsy

Bell’s palsy may prevent you from closing one eye properly. If you do not care for your exposed eye, you may experience eye complications. These can include:

  • incomplete eye closure
  • crocodile tears (tears that appear while eating)
  • dry eyes

If your facial control does not fully recover three months after experiencing Bell’s palsy symptoms, see your doctor. They may refer you to a neurologist (a doctor who specialises in brain and nerve illnesses).

You should also visit your doctor if you experience any involuntary muscle movement.

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

The Emergency Care Institute offers information on Bell's palsy in languages other than English.

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

Last reviewed: June 2022

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