What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that helps with digestion and produces the hormone insulin. Certain diseases, habits, or medications can cause the pancreas to become inflamed. Inflammation causes heat, pain, redness, and swelling.
Pancreatitis is often very painful. In acute pancreatitis, the pain can begin slowly or suddenly. It typically gets better within 1 week. But some people develop chronic pancreatitis, which means the inflammation and pain does not go away.
Most common symptoms
If you have pancreatitis you’ll be undergoing a lot of tests while in the hospital and afterwards. It’s important to keep following up with your doctor, and keep them informed of any symptoms like fevers, chills, inability to eat, pain. It can mean you have complications from pancreatitis. —Dr. Shria Kumar
The main symptom is severe pain above your belly button, which radiates to your back. You may also have a fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. You will probably look very ill. The pain is different from that of a stomach bug or menstrual cramps—it’s a severe constant pain where you’ll feel best hunched over in a ball. The pain is worse when you eat, so you may avoid eating.
- Severe pain above the belly button through to your back
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Can’t eat because of the pain
There are some risk factors for pancreatitis.
- Having gallstones (hard deposits in your gallbladder).
- Taking medications like certain antibiotics (though the chance of getting pancreatitis by taking antibiotics for the right reasons is really low).
- Recently had ERCP (an endoscopic procedure to view organs like the liver, gallbladder, pancreatic duct).
- Drinking alcohol.
- Car accident or other trauma.
Is pancreatitis serious?
If you are having severe abdominal pain and feel nauseous or are vomiting, call your doctor. You most likely will be told to go to the hospital for treatment and evaluation by a doctor. If the pain is extremely bad, you have a fast heartbeat, or you feel lightheaded or faint, go to the emergency room or call 911. These may be signs of a serious infection.
What is the main cause of pancreatitis?
The pancreas helps with digestion by breaking down food. It can become inflamed for a few reasons. One is a mechanical issue, such as when a gallstone physically blocks the pancreas. The organ can’t drain the fluids that it normally produces to help you digest your food. Also, if you have too many toxins in your system, like alcohol or drugs, they can inflame the organ.
Your doctor will likely tell you to go to the hospital. There, the doctors will give you intravenous (IV) fluids and pain medications. Fluids are very important to prevent dehydration. You will probably get an imaging test like a CT scan or MRI. You will be told not to eat for about 24 to 48 hours to allow your pancreas to recover.
Doctors will request blood tests every day to make sure you’re not developing any complications (abnormalities in your blood, dehydration, fluid from the inflammation collecting around that pancreas).
Most people start to feel better in a few days to a week. As you begin to feel better, the doctors in the hospital will start you on food. Meanwhile, you’ll cut back on fluids and pain medications. If your pain gets worse or you get fevers or chills, your doctor may do another round of imaging.
Pancreatitis is treated with “supportive care,” meaning the focus is on helping with symptoms. Doctors will give you fluids, pain medications, and tell you to rest. They’ll watch for complications. The pancreas usually heals after a week or two, and most people leave the hospital within that time frame.
An important question to ask your doctor is: Why do you think I got this? Alcohol is not the only cause of pancreatitis! —Dr. Kumar
Most people will feel better after the inflammation is gone. You can have a full recovery from pancreatitis. But you should still see your doctor after getting out of the hospital.
And definitely contact your doctor if you notice symptoms like pain, fevers, chills, nausea, vomiting, or problems eating. These could be signs of a complication from pancreatitis, like dehydration or fluid collection around the pancreas that develop as the body tries to “absorb” the inflammation.
You can’t prevent pancreatitis. But not drinking alcohol heavily can help. If you ever have pain in your abdomen, contact your doctor.