Acute pancreatitis: Causes, Symptoms, & Risks

Acute Pancreatitis

What Is Acute Pancreatitis?


  1. Acute pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas, located in the upper left side of your abdomen.
  2. There are direct and indirect causes of pancreatitis, including obstructions, immune system reactions, viral infections, and reactions to certain medications.
  3. Your doctor can prescribe medications to help clear up the inflammation, but surgery may be required for more serious complications.

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach and near the small intestine. It produces and distributes insulin, digestive enzymes, and other hormones that your body needs. Acute pancreatitis (AP) is an inflammation of the pancreas. It occurs suddenly and will cause pain and swelling in the upper abdominal (or epigastric) region, with the pain often radiating to the back area. AP can spread to other organs or develop into chronic pancreatitis if it’s not treated.

What Causes Acute Pancreatitis?


The cause of acute pancreatitis may be direct or indirect. Direct causes are those that affect the pancreas itself or its tissues or ducts. Indirect causes are those that result from diseases or conditions that originate somewhere else in the body.

Direct Causes

One of the major causes of acute pancreatitis is having gallstones. Gallstones lodge in the common bile duct and press on the pancreatic duct. This impairs the flow of fluid to and from the pancreas and causes damage.

Other direct causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • sudden immune system attacks on the pancreas, or autoimmune pancreatitis
  • pancreatic or gallbladder damage from surgery or injury
  • excessive fats called triglycerides in your blood

Indirect causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • cystic fibrosis, which is a serious condition that affects your lungs, liver, and pancreas
  • Kawasaki disease, which is a disease that occurs in children younger than age 5
  • viral infections, such as the mumps and mycoplasma pneumonia
  • Reye’s syndrome, which is a virus that may affect the liver as well
  • certain medications that contain estrogen or corticosteroids

Who Is at Risk for Acute Pancreatitis?

Risk Factors

You may be at risk for pancreatic inflammation if you drink too much alcohol. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines that as more than one drink per day for women and a maximum of two drinks per day for men. Men are more at risk than women for developing alcohol-related pancreatitis. Smoking tobacco also increases your chance of AP. Smoking and drinking rates are similar in black and white Americans, but black Americans are more than two times as likely to develop AP. Having a family history of cancer, inflammation, or another condition of the pancreas also places you at risk.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis


The predominant symptom of acute pancreatitis is abdominal pain.

The pain may vary depending on certain factors:

  • It can be very painful within minutes of drinking or consuming food.
  • It may spread from your abdomen to your back or left shoulder blade area.
  • It may last for several days at a time.
  • It may be more painful when you lie directly on your back.
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • jaundice-like appearance
  • diarrhea
  • bloating

Other major symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

Diagnosing Acute Pancreatitis


Your doctor can diagnose AP by using blood tests and scans. The blood test will look for enzymes (amylase and lipase) the pancreas is leaking. An ultrasound, or a CT or MRI scan will allow your doctor to see any abnormalities in or around your pancreas. Your doctor will also ask about your medical history and ask you to describe your discomfort.

Treating Acute Pancreatitis


You may be admitted to the hospital for further testing and to make sure you get enough fluids, usually through intravenous methods. Your doctor may order medications to clear up the inflammation and any infection that may have set in. If these treatments don’t work, surgery to remove damaged tissue, drain fluid, or repair the blocked duct may be required. If gallstones caused the problem, you may need surgery to remove the gallbladder.

Preventing Acute Pancreatitis


You can help prevent AP by limiting the amount of alcohol you drink. If you’ve already had a case of pancreatitis and haven’t changed risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol, you could develop it again.

Children under 19 should not take aspirin unless prescribed by their physician. Aspirin may cause Reye’s syndrome in children, triggering AP.

What Is to Be Expected in the Long Term?


Pancreatitis can cause serious pain in the short term. Untreated cases and recurrences can lead to a chronic problem. The good news is that most cases can be treated. The symptoms of pancreatitis can be confusing. Symptoms such as stomachaches and back pain can have other causes. If you notice the symptoms mentioned and you have reason to believe they might be related to your pancreas, you should see your doctor. 

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