Generally, kids don’t come down with pancreatitis, which is a good thing since the condition can be painful and difficult to manage. However, you may have someone in your family with this problem and want to know more about it.  If so, read on to learn about pancreatitis and about what doctors can do for it.

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a term that doctors use to describe inflammation (swelling or irritation) of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that lies right behind your stomach and helps your digestion by releasing enzymes, special chemicals that break down the food that you eat into nutrients you body can use. The pancreas also makes insulin and glucagon, important compounds  which help your body to use the sugars in your bloodstream for energy and keep your blood sugar from getting too high or too low.

In short, your pancreas is really important! And because of this, when you develop pancreatitis, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with the rest of your body. .

Are There Different Kinds of Pancreatitis?

Yes.  Pancreatitis is classified as either acute or chronic:

  • Acute: this means that the condition comes on sudden, lasts for a relatively short period of time and then goes away.
  • Chronic: this means that you can have problems with your pancreas on a long-term basis.

How Do You Know if You Have Pancreatitis?

The signs and symptoms of acute and chronic pancreatitis are a little different — but both should be reported to the doctor!

  • Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include pain in the upper part of your stomach that goes to your back or gets worse after you eat or lie down. It usually comes on suddenly or without warning.  You can also get nausea and vomiting (throwing up) and a stomach that feels sore or tender if something touches it.  Other possible symptoms include an increased heart rate, dehydration and skin discoloration on your stomach or your sides (also called flanks).
  • Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis also includes pain in the upper part of your stomach, which can come or go or be pretty much constant. It can also include losing weight without wanting to and stools (poo) that are oily or greasy and smell bad. The medical term for this is steatorrhea.

How Does Your Pancreas Get Inflamed?

Normally, the enzymes that your body makes to help break down food are made in the pancreas but activated in another part of your digestive system, usually the small intestines. However, in some people, these chemicals become active while they are still inside the pancreas. When this happens, the pancreas becomes inflamed and irritated.

There are many things that can cause these enzymes to be activated in the wrong place, including:

  • Infections
  • Some medications
  • Smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol
  • Other medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer or high levels of calcium or fats (triglycerides) in the bloodstream

In up to 15% of cases of acute pancreatitis, the cause is actually unknown. In cases of chronic pancreatitis, drinking too much alcohol is responsible for about 70% of cases, while the other 20=30% are either unknown or due to problems talked about above.

Can Pancreatitis Cause Complications?

Yes, there are several complications that having an inflamed pancreas can lead to. These include:

  • Infections, especially in the abdominal area
  • Growths in the pancreas made up of fluid and debris that can rupture (burst) and cause pain and infections.
  • Malnutrition, which means that your body is not getting the nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) that it needs from the food that you eat because there are not enough enzymes from the pancreas to help break down food
  • Diabetes, since your body cannot break down carbohydrates that you eat and turn them into sugar without insulin from the pancreas
  • Kidney failure. This means that your kidneys can no longer do their job of filtering your blood and that you will need dialysis, a means by which blood is filtered through a machine and then returned to the body.

Who is at Risk for Pancreatitis?

Again, if you’re a kid, this is not something you usually have to worry about! Risk factors for this condition include:

  • Men are more likely to have this problem than women.
  • The most common age for this to begin is between 30 and 40 years
  • Drinking and smoking are big contributors to this problem.
  • Other medical problems. If someone has a problem like gallstones or conditions like lupus, they are more likely to get pancreatitis as well.

How Does the Doctor Know if You Have Pancreatitis?

A doctor will base a diagnosis of pancreatitis on the following evidence:

  • Your signs and symptoms
  • A physical exam
  • Your personal and family medical history
  • Blood work (special tests that look for high levels of pancreatic enzymes)
  • Tests on your stool (poo) to look for the presence of fat
  • Imaging tests so that your doctor can get a better look at what is happening with your pancreas and surrounding organs like the gall bladder.

How Does the Doctor Treat Pancreatitis?

During an attack of pancreatitis, a patient is often put in the hospital for a while so they can get the kind of care they need in order to get better.  They will often have to have IV fluids to help prevent them from getting dehydration and may have to go without eating for a day or two in order to give the pancreas a rest (in this case, they will often get nutrients from the IV). They will also get special medications to control their pain and may have to get surgery.

In the long-term, treatment for this problem can include following a low-fat, high fiber diet which emphasizes things like whole grains, fruits and vegetables and which avoids things like meat or dairy products that are high in fat.  Some patients are able to control their problem with medications that imitate pancreatic enzymes and help them to digest their food. If a patient has pancreatitis because they use tobacco or alcohol, there are support groups available to help them quit and get healthy.  For some patients, if their pancreas is too damaged to produce its own insulin, they will have to start taking insulin injections.

In short, pancreatitis is a serious condition and can be difficult to treat and painful for the person who has it. However, the good news is that many of the underlying causes of this problem can be avoided through a healthy lifestyle — and there are more options available for treatment than there have been in the past.