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What Is Pancreatitis?

What Causes Pancreatitis?

In most cases, acute pancreatitis is caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. Other causes include medications, infections, trauma, metabolic disorders, and surgery. In up to 15% of people with acute pancreatitis, the cause is unknown.

In about 70% of people, chronic pancreatitis is caused by long-time alcohol use. Other causes include gallstones, hereditary disorders of the pancreas, cystic fibrosis, high triglycerides, and certain medicines. In about 20% to 30% of cases, the cause of chronic pancreatitis is unknown.

What Are the Risk Factors for Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can happen to anyone, but it is more common in people with certain risk factors.

Risk factors of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol drinking

Acute pancreatitis may be the first sign of gallstones. Gallstones can block the pancreatic duct, which can cause acute pancreatitis.

Risk factors for chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Heavy alcohol drinking for a long time
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as cystic fibrosis
  • Gallstones
  • Conditions such as high triglycerides and lupus

People with chronic pancreatitis are usually men between ages 30 and 40, but chronic pancreatitis also may occur in women.

How Is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

To diagnose acute pancreatitis, doctors measure levels in the blood of two digestive enzymes, amylase and lipase. High levels of these two enzymes strongly suggest acute pancreatitis.

Doctors may also use other tests, such as:

  • Pancreatic function test to find out if the pancreas is making the right amounts of digestive enzymes
  • Glucose tolerance test to measure damage to the cells in the pancreas that make insulin
  • Ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI, which make images of the pancreas so that problems may be seen
  • ERCP to look at the pancreatic and bile ducts using X-rays
  • Biopsy, in which a needle is inserted into the pancreas to remove a small tissue sample for study

In more advanced stages of the disease, doctors may use blood, urine, and stool tests to confirm the diagnosis.

How Is Pancreatitis Treated?

Treatment for acute pancreatitis

People with acute pancreatitis are typically treated with IV fluids and pain medications in the hospital. In some patients, the pancreatitis can be severe and they may need to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). In the ICU, the patient is closely watched because pancreatitis can damage the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Some cases of severe pancreatitis can result in death of pancreatic tissue. In these cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the dead or damaged tissue if an infection develops.

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