Imagine waking up and not being able to smile, eat or even blink. It's a terrifying thought, especially for a child. For many parents, a stroke might be the first thing that comes to mind; but that's not always the case. Now doctors are trying to spread the word.
Ten-year-old Ryan Ferrell can brighten a room with his smile. But lately, that smile has been tough to crack. Ryan has Bell's palsy, a term used to describe paralysis on one side of the face. While most of the 40,000 new cases a year are adults, neurologists say many parents are surprised to learn children can also be afflicted.
"I think many parents worry this is a stroke or some life-threatening occasion," said Dr. Michael Goldstein from the American Academy of Neurology.
That's because symptoms include a facial droop, twitching, pain behind the ear or the eye, dry mouth and difficulty tasting food. While the exact cause of Bell's palsy is not known in all cases, Dr. Goldstein says typically the cause is an inflammation of the nerve that goes from the brain to the face, caused by a virus.
It's a virus similar to the one that causes cold sores or the common cold. It can also be caused by illnesses such as Lyme disease, as it was in Ryan's case.
Dr Babak Azizzadeh is the founder of the Facial Paralysis Institute. He says the condition impacts patients physically and emotionally.
"Imagine how much kids make fun of other kids who have, you know, big ears or big noses or are a little overweight. Multiply that by ten or 100 when a kid can't smile," said Dr. Azizzadeh.
Sometimes doctors will prescribe anti-viral medication. About 85 percent of children recover completely. It takes about three-to-six-months to see significant improvement. That's a long wait when you're 10-years-old.
Many people with Bell's palsy recovery spontaneously. In some cases, surgery is required -- but only as a last resort. Dr. Goldstein says it's important to take your child to the doctor the instant you start to notice any symptoms.
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