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Quick Facts

Acute Pancreatitis


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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What is acute pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation (swelling) of your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ in your upper belly that makes juices that help you digest food. Your pancreas also makes insulin, which helps control your blood sugar.

Acute means that the inflammation starts suddenly. Long-term pancreatitis is called chronic pancreatitis.

  • Usually, acute pancreatitis is caused by gallstones or by drinking a lot of alcohol for a long time

  • Pancreatitis ranges from mild to very serious

  • Acute pancreatitis causes severe belly pain

  • Doctors will care for you in the hospital, even if your acute pancreatitis is mild

The Pancreas

The Pancreas

What causes acute pancreatitis?

The main causes of acute pancreatitis are:

Gallstones can leave your gallbladder and get stuck where the drainage tubes from the gallbladder and pancreas join together. These stones block digestive juices from getting out of the pancreas.

Drinking too much alcohol for many years damages your pancreas. The more you drink and the longer you drink, the more likely you are to get pancreatitis.

The many other, less common causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Certain medicines or hormone (estrogen) treatments

  • High levels of fats in your blood

  • Certain virus infections

  • Injury to your pancreas

  • A type of pancreatitis you can inherit

What are the symptoms of acute pancreatitis?

The main symptom is:

  • Severe pain in your upper belly that sometimes you also feel in the middle of your back

You may also have symptoms such as:

  • Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up

  • Sweating

  • Racing heart

If your pancreatitis is very severe, you may get more serious problems, such as:

  • Damage to your other organs, such as your lungs or kidneys

  • Shock (a dangerously low drop in blood pressure)

  • Infection of the pancreas

  • Forming a fluid-filled sac in your pancreas (pseudocyst)

How can doctors tell if I have acute pancreatitis?

Doctors do tests, including:

If your doctor suspects gallstones, you might also have other tests such as:

  • MRCP (a special kind of MRI that lets your doctor see pictures of your liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, or pancreatic duct)

  • Endoscopic ultrasound (a special kind of ultrasound using a long tube that's passed through your mouth and down into your intestine)

How do doctors treat acute pancreatitis?

Doctors treat mild pancreatitis using:

  • A short stay in the hospital

  • Pain medicine

  • Fasting (not eating at all) for 2 to 3 days to rest your pancreas

  • Fluids in your vein

Doctors treat more serious pancreatitis using:

  • A stay in a hospital

  • Fasting for a few days or up to several weeks (you get nutrition through an IV or tube)

  • Medicine in your vein for pain and feeling sick

  • Fluids in your vein

  • Sometimes, a tube through your nose into your stomach to take out fluids and air

  • Medicines to lower your stomach acid

  • Oxygen or a ventilator if you're very ill

  • Antibiotics for any infections

  • Surgery to remove some of the diseased pancreas or other procedures if needed, such as to open the pancreatic duct or remove a gallstone

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