What is acute pancreatitis?

Acute Pancreatitis

What happens when you have acute pancreatitis?

Most people with pancreatitis have the mild acute type. The disease does not affect their other organs. And they recover without problems. In most cases, the disease goes away within a week after treatment starts. For people with more severe symptoms, treatment is done in the hospital with pain medicines and fluids given through a vein (I.V.). After the pain goes away, the pancreas usually goes back to working the way it should.

In some cases, the tissue in the pancreas is permanently damaged or even dies (necrosis). These problems raise the risk that the organ will get infected or will stop working the way it should (organ failure).

What are the symptoms of acute pancreatitis?

The main symptom is pain in the upper belly. The pain can be severe. You also may have a fever, nausea, or vomiting. Some people get so sick that they have problems breathing. They also may have low blood pressure.

How is pancreatitis treated?

Treatment depends on the type of pancreatitis you have.

  • An acute attack may be treated in the hospital with pain medicine and fluids.
  • Treatment for chronic pancreatitis may include pain medicine, insulin, and enzyme pills. In some cases, a procedure or surgery may be an option.

How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose pancreatitis with an exam and by looking at your lab tests. Your doctor may think that you have this problem based on your symptoms and where in your belly you have pain.

You may have blood tests of enzymes called amylase and lipase. In pancreatitis, the level of these enzymes is usually much higher than normal.

You also may have imaging tests of the belly. These may include an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI. A special MRI called MRCP can show images of the bile ducts. This test can be very helpful when gallstones are causing the problem.

What is acute pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an organ behind the stomach. It makes hormones like insulin that help control how your body uses sugar. It also makes enzymes that help you digest food.

Usually these enzymes flow from the pancreas to the intestines. But if they leak into the pancreas, they can irritate it and cause pain and swelling. When this happens suddenly, it's called acute pancreatitis.

What causes acute pancreatitis?

Most of the time, acute pancreatitis is caused by gallstones or by alcohol use. Gallstones can block the flow of enzymes from the pancreas into the intestines. Alcohol can injure the pancreas. The amount of alcohol needed to cause this type of pancreatitis may be different for each person. It may happen after a drinking binge. Or it may happen after many episodes of heavy drinking.

Other causes of acute pancreatitis are:

  • Infections, including mumps.
  • Some medicines. These include certain antibiotics, steroids, and blood pressure medicines.
  • Injury, such as trauma to the belly.
  • Very high fat level (triglycerides) in the blood.

Sometimes the cause isn't known.

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