Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can be a serious, potentially life-threatening disease.
Located behind the stomach, the pancreas produces chemicals called enzymes and the hormones insulin and glucagon. Most of the time, the enzymes are active only after they reach the small intestine where they are needed to digest food. However, when these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they eat (and digest) the tissue of the pancreas, causing swelling, bleeding (haemorrhage) and damage to the pancreas and its blood vessels.
While the causes of pancreatitis are not fully understood, it is caused mainly by alcohol abuse (70%), gallstones or genetics.
Other less common causes include some medications (especially oestrogens, corticosteroids, thiazide diuretics and azathioprine); autoimmune problems; blockage of the pancreatic or common bile duct; high blood levels of triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia); complications of cystic fibrosis; haemolytic uremic syndrome; Kawasaki disease; Reye syndrome; viral infections, including mumps, coxsackie B, mycoplasma pneumonia; campylobacter; cancer of the pancreas; trauma to the abdomen or back; and scorpion or snakebites.
Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Both forms occur more often in men than in women, both are serious, and both can lead to complications.
- Pain in the upper left side or middle of the abdomen that can radiate to the back or left shoulder blade; at first it may be worse within minutes after eating or drinking, especially if foods have a high fat content, then it may become constant and more severe, lasting for several days. The pain may be worse when lying flat on your back
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Breathing difficulties
- Weight loss
- Symptoms of sugar diabetes.
Treatment for acute pancreatitis requires a few days in hospital for intravenous (IV) fluids, antibiotics and medication to relieve the pain. You will be given nothing to eat or drink so the pancreas can rest. If vomiting occurs, a tube may be placed through your nose and into your stomach to remove fluid and air.
Unless complications arise, acute pancreatitis usually resolves in a few days. In severe cases, you may require nasogastric feeding (a special liquid given in a long, thin tube inserted through the nose and throat and into the stomach) for several weeks while the pancreas heals. In the most severe cases, surgery may be needed to remove the dead or infected pancreatic tissue.
Avoid alcohol, smoking and fatty foods after the attack has improved.