Pancreatitis is an often painful and serious disease in which the pancreas becomes swollen and inflamed and does not work properly. Pancreatic enzymes – meant to aid in food digestion once they empty into the small intestine – activate too early, when still in the pancreas, and start to break down pancreatic tissue, damaging the organ.

Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and can affect people of any age.  Most will recover quickly, though there is a danger that they will develop chronic pancreatitis if the cause isn't discovered and corrected. The main symptom is severe mid- and upper-abdominal pain that may radiate to the mid-back or shoulder blade.  The pain may be worse after eating, drinking or lying flat on your back. In general, it's likely to become constant and more severe over the course of a few days.

In addition to pain, other symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • sweating
  • clay-colored stools
  • abdominal fullness.

Chronic pancreatitis tends to develop slowly and worsen with time. Scar tissue develops and the pancreas may lose its ability to make digestive enzymes as well as insulin and glucagon, the hormones that regulate blood sugar.  People with chronic pancreatitis typically feel pain in the abdomen, but it is usually intermittent and not necessarily severe enough to require emergency treatment.

In addition to pain, other symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include:

  • weight loss
  • bulky, oily or foul-smelling stool
  • diabetes.

Pancreatitis risk factors and causes

  • alcohol use
  • gallstones
  • pancreatic tumors
  • abdominal trauma or surgery
  • family history (hereditary pancreatitis)
  • scarred duct openings
  • divided pancreas (pancreas divisum)
  • use of medications (especially estrogens, corticosteroids, thiazide diuretics, and azathioprine)
  • autoimmune problems
  • high levels of triglyceride fats in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • cystic fibrosis
  • hypercalcemia—high levels of calcium in the blood
  • viral infections (including mumps, coxsackie B, mycoplasma pneumonia and campylobacter)
  • Kawasaki disease (rare childhood disease)

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