Normally, the structure of the pancreas and the pancreatic duct prevent digestive enzymes from damaging the pancreas. But certain conditions can develop that cause damage and pancreatitis.
Most attacks of pancreatitis are caused by gallstones that block the flow of pancreatic enzymes or by excessive amounts of alcohol. Sudden (acute) pancreatitis may happen after a drinking binge or after many episodes of heavy drinking.
Other causes of acute pancreatitis are:
- Infections, including mumps.
- Some medicines, including certain antibiotics, steroids, and blood pressure medicines.
- High triglycerides.
Sometimes the cause is not known.
Excessive alcohol use is the most common cause of ongoing pancreatitis (chronic pancreatitis).1
Other causes of chronic pancreatitis include cystic fibrosis or a blockage in the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis may run in families. And smoking cigarettes seems to increase the risk for this disease. In about 1 out of 4 cases, doctors aren't sure what causes it.2
Experts don't know how alcohol irritates the pancreas. Most believe that alcohol either causes enzymes to back up into the pancreas or changes the chemistry of the enzymes, causing them to inflame the pancreas.