What is pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a small organ that sits behind the stomach and produces enzymes that help with digestion. It also produces hormones that help the body process sugar.
Pancreatitis is when this organ becomes inflamed.
Types of pancreatitis
There are two types of pancreatitis:
- Acute pancreatitis – When the pancreas suddenly becomes inflamed for a short period of time. It’s often a mild condition that settles after a few days, but it can be more severe and even life-threatening in some cases.
- Chronic pancreatitis – With chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes permanently damaged due to long-term inflammation.
The cause of acute pancreatitis is not always known, but the most common triggers are:
- Drinking too much alcohol
Other causes include:
- Infections, such as viruses
- Certain medications
- Damage or injury to the pancreas
- Autoimmune conditions
In chronic pancreatitis, the most common causes are:
- One or more attacks of acute pancreatitis
- Heavy alcohol use over a long period
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:
- Sudden severe pain in the centre of your tummy
- Nausea or vomiting
- A temperature of 38°C or more
Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Severe tummy pain that often starts in the middle or the left side of your tummy and moves across your back
- The pain can come and go but often last for hours at a time
- Nausea or vomiting
When the pancreas becomes badly damaged over a number of years, it’s called advanced chronic pancreatitis. This can lead to further symptoms, including:
- Smelly, oily poo
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Feeling thirsty
- Needing to pee a lot
- Extreme tiredness
- Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
Both acute and chronic pancreatitis are usually diagnosed in hospitals. A range of tests may be used to get a picture of your pancreas, including:
- Blood tests
- Ultrasound – A scan that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the pancreas
- CT scan – Takes a series of X-rays to build up a detailed 3D picture of your pancreas
- Endoscopic ultrasound scan – A picture of your pancreas is taken with a long, thin tube (endoscope) containing a camera that’s passed through your mouth and into your stomach
- MRI – A scan that makes detailed images of the body using magnetic fields and radio waves
- MRCP – A type of MRI scan that can produce a detailed image of your pancreas and the surrounding organs
In some cases of chronic pancreatitis, the symptoms can be like pancreatic cancer and a biopsy may need to be taken. This involves taking a sample of cells from your pancreas to be sent to a laboratory to be tested.
Treatment depends on the type of pancreatitis you have and how serious it is.
Treatment for acute pancreatitis
If you have acute pancreatitis, you will usually be treated in the hospital. It’s not always easy to tell how severe acute pancreatitis is at first, so you’ll be monitored for any signs that it’s serious.
In the first few days, you may be given fluids to prevent dehydration and oxygen through tubes in your nose while doctors monitor your condition. You may be given antibiotics if your pancreas is infected.
If the condition is mild, symptoms should ease in a few days, and you’ll be discharged.
In more severe cases, complications can develop, and recovery may take a lot longer or possibly require surgery.
If gallstones are the cause of your pancreatitis, and they’re blocking your bile or pancreatic ducts, a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP) may be use be used to remove the gallstones.
Treatment for chronic pancreatitis
With chronic pancreatitis, the permanent damage to the pancreas can’t be cured, but symptoms can be reduced with treatment and lifestyle changes.
- Pancreatic enzyme supplements – The majority of naturally occurring digestive enzymes come from our pancreas, so supplements can be taken to give the digestive system a boost.
- Steroid medication – This can be effective in relieving inflammation
- Pain relief medication – A range of pain relief can be used, from over-the-counter painkillers to stronger, opiate-based painkillers.
- Surgery – If you experience severe pain that isn’t responding to other treatments, surgery may be recommended. This might include endoscopic surgery or a pancreas resection, where part of the pancreas is removed. In severe cases, a total pancreatectomy may be needed to remove the entire pancreas.
Lifestyle changes that may help manage your symptoms include:
- Stop drinking alcohol – Avoiding alcohol can help to reduce the pain. Even if alcohol use isn’t the cause of your pancreatitis, continuing to drink can cause more damage to your pancreas, so it’s advisable to avoid alcohol.
- Don’t smoke – If you’re a smoker, it’s a good idea to give up as smoking can speed up the damage to your pancreas.
- Follow a healthy diet – Chronic pancreatitis can affect your digestion and making some dietary changes can make a big difference. Talk to your doctor about how to make some positive changes to your diet.
- Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
- Last updated: