What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the pancreas. When the pancreas is inflamed, the powerful digestive enzymes it makes can damage its tissue. The inflamed pancreas can cause release of inflammatory cells and toxins that may harm your lungs, kidneys and heart.

There are two forms of pancreatitis:

  • Acute pancreatitis is a sudden and short bout of inflammation.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is ongoing inflammation.

Where is the pancreas located?

The pancreas is an organ in the upper abdomen (belly). It connects to the beginning of the small intestine (the duodenum). It contains the pancreatic duct (tube), which drains digestive enzymes (chemicals) into the small intestine (the duodenum).

What is the function of the pancreas?

Your pancreas has two primary functions. First, it makes digestive enzymes (chemicals) and releases them into the small intestine. These enzymes break down carbohydrates, proteins and fat from food.

Your pancreas also produces several hormones and releases them into the blood. Amongst these hormones is insulin which regulates the amount of sugar in your blood (glucose). Insulin also helps provide energy now and stores some for later.

Who gets pancreatitis?

You’re more likely to develop pancreatitis if you:

  • Are male.
  • Are African-American.
  • Have other people in your family who’ve had pancreatitis.
  • Have gallstones or have family members with gallstones.
  • Have obesity, high triglycerides (fat in the blood) or diabetes.
  • Are a smoker.
  • Are a heavy drinker (three or more drinks a day).

What causes pancreatitis?

Gallstones or heavy alcohol drinking are usually the cause of pancreatitis. Rarely, you can also get pancreatitis from:

  • Medications (many can irritate the pancreas).
  • High triglyceride levels (fat in the blood).
  • Infections.
  • Abdominal injury.
  • Metabolic disorders such as diabetes.
  • Genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis symptoms vary, depending on the type of condition:

Acute pancreatitis symptoms

If you have acute pancreatitis, you may experience:

  • Moderate to severe upper abdominal pain that may spread to your back.
  • Pain that comes on suddenly or builds up over a few days.
  • Pain that worsens when eating.
  • Swollen, tender abdomen.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Faster than usual heart rate.

Chronic pancreatitis symptoms

Chronic pancreatitis may cause some of the same symptoms as acute pancreatitis. You may also develop:

  • Constant, sometimes disabling pain that spreads to your back.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Foamy diarrhea with visible oil droplets (steatorrhea).
  • Diabetes (high blood sugar), if insulin-producing pancreas cells are damaged.

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