What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that occurs when pancreatic enzyme secretions build up and begin to digest the organ itself. It can occur as acute, painful attacks lasting a matter of days, or it may be a chronic, condition that progresses over a period of years.

Acute vs. Chronic Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis refers to pancreatitis that develops suddenly, most often as a result of gallstones or alcohol ingestion. Reaction to certain medications, trauma, and infectious causes can also lead to acute pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis can be life threatening, but most patients recover completely.

Chronic pancreatitis refers to ongoing disease in which the pancreas continues to sustain damage and lose function over time. The majority of cases of chronic pancreatitis result from ongoing alcohol abuse, but some cases are hereditary or due to diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Approximately 87,000 people are treated for pancreatitis each year in the U.S., with the disease affecting roughly twice as many males as females. Occurring very rarely in children, pancreatitis primarily affects adults.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Severe, steady pain in the upper-middle part of the abdomen, often radiating into the back
  • Jaundice
  • Low-grade fever

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Causes of Pancreatitis

In more than half of patients, chronic pancreatitis is caused by long-term abuse of alcohol, which leads to damage and scarring of the pancreas. Other people may develop chronic pancreatitis as a result of hereditary causes and other causes, including:

  • Gallstones
  • Structural problems of the pancreatic and bile ducts
  • Some medications like estrogen supplements and some diuretics
  • Severe viral or bacterial infection

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Treatment for Pancreatitis

Treatment for acute pancreatitis may include nutritional support with feeding tubes or intravenous (IV) nutrition, antibiotics, and pain medications. Surgery is sometimes needed to treat complications. More about pancreatitis treatments »