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What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas. The inflammation may be sudden (acute) or ongoing (chronic). Acute pancreatitis usually involves a single "attack," after which the pancreas returns to normal. Severe acute pancreatitis can be life threatening. With chronic pancreatitis, permanent damage occurs to the pancreas and its function, often leading to fibrosis (scarring).

What causes pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis: acute versus chronic

The onset of acute pancreatitis is abrupt and dramatic and may follow a heavy meal or an alcoholic binge, causing pancreatic enzymes to break down the pancreas. Gallstones or alcohol abuse are the most common causes of acute pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis takes place over time and involves progressive destruction of the pancreas. Alcoholism, cystic fibrosis and stenosis (narrowing) of the pancreatic duct are common causes of chronic pancreatitis.

The most common causes of pancreatitis are:

  • gallstones that block the pancreatic duct
  • alcohol abuse, which can lead to blockage of the small pancreatic ductules

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

The following are the other most common symptoms of pancreatitis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fast pulse
  • feeling ill
  • fever
  • swelling in the upper abdomen
  • ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity)
  • dropping blood pressure
  • severe abdominal pain in upper abdomen (with acute pancreatitis)
  • mild jaundice - (yellowing of the skin and eyes) 

The symptoms of pancreatitis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for pancreatitis may include:

  • abdominal x-rays or scans
  • computerized tomography (CT) scan 
  • endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) - exam of the pancreatic ducts
  • magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) 
  • blood tests

Treatment for pancreatitis:

Specific treatment for pancreatitis will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • hospitalization for observation and intravenous feeding
  • endoscopy retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • surgery
  • antibiotics
  • avoiding alcohol (if the pancreatitis is caused by alcohol abuse)

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