Your Guide to Acute Pancreatitis

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Acute pancreatitis causes inflammation or swelling of the pancreas. With treatment, acute pancreatitis often clears within a few days. However, people with severe symptoms are at risk for serious complications. The pancreas is a small organ. It is found behind your stomach and aids in digestion. Acute pancreatitis involves pancreatic inflammation over a short period. This is unlike chronic pancreatitis, which can lead to long-term inflammation that can cause permanent damage to the pancreas.

This article will discuss the symptoms, causes, and risk factors for acute pancreatitis. It will also explain how doctors diagnose and treat the condition. Finally, it will talk about how you can prevent acute pancreatitis.

What are the symptoms of acute pancreatitis?

Person receiving an abdominal check from a doctor
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The most common symptom of acute pancreatitis is severe pain that begins in your upper abdomen. It can then travel to your back. Sometimes leaning forward can help alleviate the pain, but lying down or walking may make it worse.

Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

Often, eating can worsen your symptoms. This is especially true if you eat fatty foods.

If you develop severe abdominal pain suddenly, contact your doctor right away.

Learn about pancreatitis.

What causes acute pancreatitis?

The most common causes of acute pancreatitis are:

  • alcohol use
  • gallstones
  • high levels of certain fats or triglycerides in your blood, called hypertriglyceridemia

Other causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • drug use
  • certain surgeries, such as abdominal surgery
  • viral infection
  • bacterial infection
  • parasitic infection
  • smoking
  • trauma
  • genetic disorders
  • high levels of calcium in your blood, called hypercalcemia
  • renal disease
  • certain toxins, such as scorpion bites
  • inflammation of the blood vessels, called vasculitis

Sometimes the cause of acute pancreatitis is unknown.

Learn about gallstones.

Risk factors

Certain factors may put you at a higher risk of developing pancreatitis. These risk factors include:

  • being age 70 or older
  • having obesity
  • smoking
  • having 2 or more alcoholic drinks a day
  • having a family history of pancreatitis

How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis can resemble those of other conditions. Your doctor will want to verify certain things to give a thorough diagnosis.

They will typically ask you about the following:

  • your history of smoking
  • your history of alcohol use
  • your family history
  • your medical history
  • the onset of your symptoms

They will usually want to perform a physical exam as well. This will generally include an abdominal exam to check for swelling and tenderness.

Your doctor may also order lab tests, X-rays, or other scans to verify inflammation and elevations of amylase and lipase. These are biochemical markers that can signal the presence of acute pancreatitis.

How is acute pancreatitis treated?

Acute pancreatitis typically requires treatment in a hospital. Most people see an improvement of symptoms within a few days. However, more severe cases may require longer-term treatment.

Treatment while in the hospital typically includes:

  • fluids through an IV
  • not eating anything by mouth until symptoms subside
  • eating a low fat diet once symptoms have begun to clear
  • treating any underlying conditions, such as gallstones

Your doctor may also give you medication to help manage your pain.

What are the complications of acute pancreatitis?

People with severe acute pancreatitis can experience complications. These complications include:

  • Pseudocysts: These are sacs of fluid that can develop on the pancreas. They often clear up on their own but may require the fluid to be drained.
  • Pancreatic necrosis and infection: Sometimes, acute pancreatitis can cause the pancreas to lose its blood supply. This can lead to some of the tissue dying, known as necrosis. The necrosis can lead to serious infections like sepsis. This requires immediate medical care.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: If you experience recurring acute pancreatitis, this can lead to permanent damage of your pancreas. This is known as chronic pancreatitis.

Can you prevent acute pancreatitis?

You cannot always prevent acute pancreatitis. However, there are ways you can reduce your risk of developing it. These include:

  • Maintain a moderate weight.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Get regular exercise or physical activity.
  • Avoid consuming too much alcohol.
  • Avoid smoking or quit smoking if you already smoke.

Summary

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. The most common causes include gallstones, heavy alcohol use, and high levels of fats in your blood.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis typically requires hospitalization. Symptoms may begin to clear within a few days of beginning treatment. More severe cases may require longer-term treatment and can lead to serious complications.

If you experience any symptoms of acute pancreatitis, like sudden severe upper abdominal pain, contact your doctor right away.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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