What Are the Warning Signs of Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a disease in which your pancreas gets inflamed. Pancreatitis affects about over 100,000 people in the United States every year and can be painful and disruptive to your daily life. Without treatment, pancreatitis can cause serious complications. So, it’s best to know the warning signs and reach out to your doctor early.

What Is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ in your abdomen behind the stomach. Its job is to make enzymes to help your body convert food to energy. Digestive enzymes break down carbohydrates, fat, and protein in the food you eat. Pancreas also makes hormones such as insulin which regulates blood sugar. The proper regulation of these hormones and enzymes keeps your body nourished.

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What Happens with Pancreatitis?

Normally, digestive enzymes travel through a duct from the pancreas into the small intestine to break down food. But when you have pancreatitis, the enzymes build up in the pancreas and begin to digest the pancreas instead. This can happen because of a blockage, such as a gallstone, that doesn’t allow the enzymes to flow out. Pancreatitis can also result from scarring or damage to the pancreas, or from heavy drinking, smoking, or injury.

Most often, pancreatitis starts suddenly and goes away within a few days with treatment. This is called acute pancreatitis. Gallstones and heavy drinking most commonly cause the acute form. Genetic disorders, infection, injury, pancreatic cancer, high triglycerides, and some medications can also cause acute pancreatitis. Treatment involves IV fluids and antibiotics given at a hospital to stop the current attack and give the pancreas time to heal. You may also need treatments to address a root cause, such as gallbladder surgery.

Pancreatitis inflammation can also persist for a long time, which is called chronic pancreatitis. This form most commonly happens from heavy drinking, smoking, certain genetic disorders, and other causes. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to severe scarring in the pancreas.

Inflammation or damage can prevent the pancreas from functioning appropriately. That can lead to malnutrition, because your body isn’t breaking down essential nutrients for the body to use. It can also lead to diabetes, since your body isn’t controlling your blood sugar properly.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Most people with acute pancreatitis recover with treatment, but it’s important to seek care early. Pancreatitis most commonly causes pain in the upper belly. This pain comes on suddenly and can spread to the back. You may have mild or severe pain.

You may also have:

  • Vomiting or nausea.
  • Fever.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Swelling or tenderness of your upper belly.
  • Pain that worsens after eating.

People with chronic pancreatitis may have no symptoms until the condition has caused severe damage to the pancreas. However, abdominal pain that spreads to the back remains the most common warning sign. Chronic pancreatitis may also cause diarrhea, weight loss, or greasy, unusually foul-smelling stools.

“UPMC pancreatologists are also actively engaged in research on pancreatitis,” says Dr. Dhiraj Yadav, UPMC pancreatologist and gastroenterologist. “Our researchers are either leading or participating in many of the world’s top ongoing multicenter studies in pancreatitis.”

When to See a Doctor

If you have ongoing abdominal pain, contact your doctor. Generally, you’re likely to feel ill and in need of medical care if you have pancreatitis. Some mild cases may go away at home, but it’s safest to see your doctor. If you have vomiting, shortness of breath, or yellowing of your skin or eyes, seek immediate care.

The UPMC Digestive Health Care is one of the leading pancreas disease groups in the U.S. Gastroenterologists at UPMC’s Pancreas Center of Excellence know how to identify pancreatitis and its underlying causes. Plus, you can find doctors and nutritionists to guide you through treatment and lifestyle changes designed to keep your pancreas healthy.

To learn more about pancreatitis and to get the care you need, call the UPMC Digestive Health Care at 1-866-4GASTRO.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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About Digestive Disorders

UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.