Acute pancreatitis happens when a gland called the pancreas suddenly develops inflammation, making it irritated and swollen. The pancreas is found on the left side of the abdomen, behind the stomach. The pancreas makes proteins (enzymes) that help to digest food. It also releases the hormones glucagon and insulin. These help to regulate blood sugar.
Most sudden (acute) attacks of this condition last a few days and can cause serious problems. Some people become dehydrated and develop low blood pressure. In severe cases, bleeding in the abdomen can lead to shock and can be life-threatening. The lungs, heart, and kidneys may stop working.
What are the causes?
Heavy alcohol use.
Gallstones or other conditions that can block the tube that drains the pancreas (pancreatic duct).
A tumor in the pancreas.
Being exposed to certain medicines or certain chemicals.
Having health conditions such as diabetes, high triglycerides, or high calcium levels in your blood. High calcium levels are usually caused by the parathyroid gland being too active.
An infection in the pancreas.
Damage caused by an accident (trauma) or by the poison (venom) of a scorpion sting.
Autoimmune pancreatitis. This is when the body’s disease-fighting system (immune system) attacks the pancreas.
Genes that are passed from parent to child (inherited).
In some cases, the cause of this condition is not known.
What are the signs or symptoms?
Pain in the upper abdomen that may spread (radiate) to the back. Pain may be severe and often worsens after you eat.
A tender and swollen abdomen.
Nausea and vomiting.
How is this diagnosed?
A physical exam.
Blood tests. These include an increased (elevated) level of lipase or amylase.
Imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRIs, or an ultrasound of the abdomen.
How is this treated?
Placing a tube in the stomach to remove stomach contents and to control vomiting (nasogastric tube, or NG tube).
Not eating until vomiting has lessened.
- Treating any underlying conditions that may be the cause. Treatment may include:
Antibiotic medicines, if your condition is caused by an infection.
Steroid medicine, if your condition is caused by your immune system attacking your pancreas (autoimmune disease).
Surgery on the gallbladder or pancreas, if your condition is caused by gallstones or another blockage.
Follow these instructions at home:
Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
If you were prescribed an antibiotic medicine, take it as told by your health care provider. Do not stop using the antibiotic even if you start to feel better.
- Ask your health care provider if the medicine prescribed to you:
Requires you to avoid driving or using machinery.
- Can cause constipation. You may need to take these actions to prevent or treat constipation:
Take over-the-counter or prescription medicines.
Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as beans, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Limit foods that are high in fat and processed sugars, such as fried or sweet foods.
Eating and drinking
Follow instructions from your health care provider about diet. This may involve avoiding alcohol and having less fat in your diet.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Doing this causes the pancreas to make less digestive fluid.
Drink enough fluid to keep your urine pale yellow.
Do not drink alcohol if it caused your condition.
Do not use any products that contain nicotine or tobacco. These products include cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vaping devices, such as e-cigarettes. If you need help quitting, ask your health care provider.
Get plenty of rest.
If directed, check your blood sugar at home as told by your health care provider.
Keep all follow-up visits. This is important.
Contact a health care provider if:
You do not get better as fast as expected.
Your symptoms get worse or you get new symptoms.
You keep having pain, weakness, or nausea.
You get better and then pain comes back.
You have a fever.
Get help right away if:
You vomit every time you eat or drink.
Your pain becomes severe.
Your skin or the white parts of your eyes turn yellow (jaundice).
You have sudden swelling in your abdomen.
You feel dizzy or you faint.
Your blood sugar is high (over 300 mg/dL).
You vomit blood.
Do not wait to see if the symptoms will go away.
Do not drive yourself to the hospital.
Acute pancreatitis happens when inflammation of the pancreas suddenly occurs and the pancreas becomes irritated and swollen.
This condition is typically caused by heavy alcohol use, drug use, or gallstones.
Treatment for this condition usually requires a stay in the hospital.
This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.