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Understanding Pancreatitis

What Is Pancreatitis?

There are two types of pancreatitis, chronic and acute. Both refer to inflammation of the pancreas, a gland that produces digestive enzymes -- which the body uses to metabolize carbohydrates and fats -- and the hormone insulin.

pancreatits the basics

The symptoms of acute pancreatitis are typically severe and need to be treated. If they aren't, you may develop complications like pancreatic cysts, abscesses, and leaks of pancreatic fluid into the abdomen, which can lead to other long-term problems or even death. Shock is a possibly fatal complication of acute pancreatitis.

Chronic pancreatitis develops over a number of years, usually after a history of recurrent attacks of acute pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis may cause you to lose the ability to secrete the enzymes the body needs to digest foods. The resulting condition, known as pancreatic insufficiency, is a principal characteristic of chronic pancreatitis and is signaled by weight loss -- either gradual or sudden -- and foul-smelling stools or diarrhea. Chronic pancreatitis can also lead to diabetes mellitus and pancreatic calcification, in which small, hard calcium deposits develop in the pancreas.

What Causes Pancreatitis?

In the majority of cases, acute pancreatitis is associated with excessive alcohol use and gallstones in the U.S. The rest of the cases result from infections, some medications, trauma or surgery to the abdomen, blood vessel disease, elevated calcium levels, genetic mutations, or extremely high triglyceride levels (a type of fat that circulates in the blood).

These factors appear to encourage pancreatic digestive enzymes to act on the pancreas itself, causing swelling, hemorrhage, and damage to blood vessels in the pancreas. 

About 30% of people who develop chronic pancreatitis are heavy drinkers; heavy consumption of alcohol is the most frequent cause of pancreatic insufficiency in adults. The leading cause of pancreatic insufficiency in children is cystic fibrosis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Lisa B. Bernstein, MD on March 18, 2015

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