Justin Bieber has temporary facial paralysis due to Ramsay Hunt syndrome

The rare disease usually affects people with compromised immune systems and those who are older, sometimes causing vertigo, dizziness, balance and hearing issues.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read June 14, 2022
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Justin Bieber has Ramsay Hunt which is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Justin Bieber has a rare neurological condition that has paralyzed half of his face, the Canadian pop star said over the weekend.

In a video he posted on Instagram, Bieber, 28, explained that he’s been diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

“As you can probably see from my face, I have this syndrome called Ramsay Hunt syndrome and it is from this virus that attacks the nerve in my ear and my facial nerves and has caused my face to have paralysis,” he says in the three-minute video.

His face will go back to normal with time, he said, although he doesn’t know how long it will take.

“I’m gonna get better. I’m doing all these facial exercises to get my face back to normal,” he said in the video. “We don’t know how much time it’s going to be, but it’s gonna be… it’s gonna be okay. I have hope.”

What is Ramsay Hunt syndome?

Ramsay Hunt is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. It can linger in the body forever, and can potentially re-emerge even years after someone has recovered from chickenpox. It impacts the facial nerve near one of the ears, the Mayo Clinic explains, and will usually cause painful blisters around the ear as well as temporary paralysis on that side of the face. It may also cause symptoms including ear pain, hearing loss, vertigo, tinnitus, dry mouth and eyes, and a change in taste perception.

It’s a fairly rare condition: it occurs in about five out of 100,000 Americans per year, and makes up about seven per cent of acute facial paralysis symptoms. (For reference, Bell’s palsy, which also causes facial paralysis, affects between 15 and 30 Americans per year.)

It’s most common in adults over 60, and it’s “very unusual” for someone in their 20s, like Bieber, to be diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt, Dr. Kashif Pirzada told CTV News.

“Usually it affects people with compromised immune systems and people who are older,” Pirzada said. “It can be pretty disabling, it can cause your voice to change. It can cause vertigo, dizziness, balance issues, and hearing issues.”

Ramsay Hunt “can happen to anyone,” said Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, told The New York Times. “But it’s not something that people should be afraid of.”

The syndrome isn’t contagious, but it can cause chickenpox in people who haven’t had it or been vaccinated against it.

No, it’s isn’t related to COVID-19 vaccines

A number of internet conspiracy theorists have linked Bieber’s symptoms to the COVID vaccine. But there’s no proven link at all. In fact, Ramsey Hunt is so rare in part because of vaccines.

“Children are now routinely vaccinated against chickenpox, which greatly reduces the chances of becoming infected with the chickenpox virus” that causes the syndrome, the Mayo Clinic states. “A shingles vaccine for people age 50 or older also is recommended.”

How is Ramsay Hunt treated?

The condition is often treated with the same antiviral drugs doctors prescribe for chickenpox, like acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex). In some cases, treatment with corticosteroids is also helpful.

Treating Ramsay Hunt quickly is crucial in mitigating the damage it can do to the body. While permanent facial paralysis or hearing loss does happen occasionally, most people make a full recovery, Dr. Michael Ison, a professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, told the New York Times. “Some people, it takes weeks. Some people, it takes months,” he said. (Canadian politician Olivia Chow recovered from Ramsay Hunt syndrome in 2013.)

The kind of physical therapy Bieber described isn’t typical for Ramsay Hunt patients, infectious disease specialist Dr. Anna Wald told the New York Times, but it can’t hurt.

‘My body is telling me I gotta slow down’

Bieber canceled several tour dates due to his diagnosis, and plans to use the extra time “to just rest and relax and get back to 100 per cent,” he said in the Instagram video.

“I wish this wasn’t the case, but obviously my body is telling me I gotta slow down. I hope you guys understand.”

His wife, model Hailey Baldwin Bieber, also had health problems recently: in March she announced that a blood clot to her brain had caused “stroke-like symptoms,” in what experts say sounds like a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke).


Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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