The pancreas is a large organ behind the stomach that’s a crucial component of the digestive process. It creates hormones, like insulin, to help control blood sugar, as well as enzymes that help break down food in the small intestine.

Pancreatic cysts are pockets of fluid that are on — or in — your pancreas. They can be difficult to diagnose because they have minimal symptoms. They’re often found by chance when conducting an image test (such as a CT scan) for another issue.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the majority of cysts on the pancreas are not cancerous.

Pancreatic pseudocysts

Often the result of pancreatitis or an abdominal impact injury, a pancreatic pseudocyst is formed by a collection of tissue and fluids that are different from the tissue in a true cyst. A pseudocyst is less likely to be malignant (cancerous) than a true cyst.

Pancreatic cysts do not typically exhibit many symptoms. In the rare case that they do, symptoms can include:

  • persistent abdominal pain
  • the feeling of a mass in the upper abdomen
  • vomiting or nausea

If you have a fever in addition to these symptoms (especially persistent abdominal pain), contact your doctor immediately, as this may be the sign of a pancreatic cyst infection.

Another rare complication that can occur is a ruptured cyst or ruptured pseudocyst. The fluid that is released can cause massive internal bleeding and infection of the abdominal cavity. Seek immediate emergency attention if you’re experiencing any of the signs of shock or internal bleeding, such as:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • fainting or lack of consciousness
  • rapid or weak heartbeat
  • vomiting blood

There are two main types of pancreatic cysts: serous and mucinous. The main difference between them is the type of fluid they contain. Serous cysts have a thin fluid, whereas mucinous cysts have a stickier and thicker fluid.

Your age, sex, and the characteristics of the cyst help determine what type of cyst you’re likely to have.

The majority of pancreatic cysts are noncancerous (benign), however, there are several mucinous cysts that can be more concerning. This includes:

  • Mucinous cystic neoplasm (MCN) are mainly found in women and contain ovarian tissue.
  • Main-duct intrapapillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMN) involve the main duct of the pancreas and contains intestinal villus (small protrusions that look like fingers).

While the main cause of pancreatic cysts is unknown, there are several risk factors including:

  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease. This genetic disorder affects the pancreas.
  • Pancreatitis. When enzymes that help with digestion are active prematurely, it can lead to irritation of the pancreas, which can result in cysts.
  • Gallstones and heavy alcohol use. These are both risk factors for pancreatitis, so in turn, they’re risk factors for pancreatic cysts.
  • Abdominal injury. Cysts are more likely to form after abdominal trauma, such as after a car accident.

There are few noninvasive treatments for pancreatic cysts, with the only real option being watchful waiting. This is because a benign cyst, even a large one, does not need any type of treatment as long as it does not bother you. However, you should still watch closely for any signs or symptoms that arise.

The more invasive treatment options include:

  • Drainage. In this procedure, an endoscope (small tube) is placed in your mouth and directed to your small intestine. The small tube contains an endoscopic ultrasound, along with a needle to drain fluid from the cyst. In some cases, drainage through a needle in your skin may be the only viable option.
  • Pancreatic cyst surgery. This surgical option is primarily used for enlarged, painful, or cancerous pancreatic cysts.

There are several steps you can take to prevent a pancreatic cyst from occurring again, including:

Avoiding pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is typically the result of gallstones and/or heavy alcohol use.

  • Removing the gallbladder can reduce the risk of pancreatitis for individuals with gallstones.
  • Reducing alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of pancreatitis.

Another cause of pancreatitis is hypertriglyceridemia. If you have this disorder, you have a higher-than-normal triglyceride level. Elevated triglycerides of greater than 1000 mg/dL increase a person’s risk for pancreatitis. Hypertriglyceridemia is the third most common cause for acute pancreatitis after gallstones and alcohol.

Hypertriglyceridemia can be genetic (primary) or due to other causes (secondary) such as diabetes, medications, alcohol, or pregnancy.

Following a low-fat diet

Restricting your daily fat intake to 30 to 50 grams can also reduce your risk of pancreatic cysts. A low-fat diet includes:

  • baked, broiled, grilled, or steamed meat
  • low- or nonfat dairy
  • meat and dairy alternatives (like almond milk, tofu)
  • whole grains
  • fruits, with the exception of avocado
  • vegetables
  • avoid

You should also avoid sugary sodas and drinks with cream (like eggnog), and fried foods (including fried vegetables).

If you’re concerned about a potential pancreatic cyst, contact your doctor. Along with examining your medical history, they can run a number of tests, including CT scans, MRI scans, and endoscopic ultrasounds.

After testing, your doctor may take a sample of the fluid in order to determine whether or not the cells are cancerous. It’s also important to note that cysts may return if you have an ongoing case of pancreatitis.