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What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can interfere with your body's ability to digest food and use nutrients.

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, a small grayish-pink gland that sits behind the stomach. About 6 inches long, the pancreas secretes enzymes that help the body break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates from food, according to the American Cancer Society. It also secretes insulin and glucagon, hormones that play a vital role in providing fuel for the body by processing sugars in the bloodstream.

Pancreatitis may be short term (acute) and last only a few days or long term (chronic). Either form of pancreatitis can be life-threatening.

Why it happens

The reason for pancreatitis can't always be found. A common cause is gallstones, which form when digestive juices harden into stones. Gallstones can block the normal flow of digestive fluid, causing it to build up in the pancreas and irritate pancreatic tissues. Alcohol abuse is also a leading cause of both acute and chronic forms of the disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Less common causes of pancreatitis include high amounts of fats called triglycerides in the blood, cystic fibrosis, some drugs, scarring from prior surgery, and an inherited tendency toward the disease.

Symptoms

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the center of the upper abdomen, going through to the back, which may get worse after eating.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Yellowing of the skin.
  • Weight loss.

If you think you have pancreatitis, call your doctor.

Diagnosis

To determine if you have pancreatitis and whether your pancreas has been damaged, your doctor may recommend several tests. These might include blood tests to check for levels of enzymes, minerals and sugar, as well as imaging tests such as ultrasound or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

Treatment

Treatment for pancreatitis depends on the severity and symptoms. It can include intravenous fluids, antibiotics, enzyme supplements or pain relievers. If the pancreatitis is caused by gallstones, you may need to have your gallbladder removed. In the case of a severe infection, extensive tissue damage or a blockage, you may need surgery.

Your doctor may also recommend reducing the fat in your diet, eating smaller meals, and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes.

Reviewed 9/16/2020

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