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What Is Pancreatitis?

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

The symptoms of acute pancreatitis are typically severe and need to be treated. If they aren’t, you may develop 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 your 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 deposits develop in the pancreas.

What Causes It?

Acute pancreatitis is associated with excessive alcohol drinking and gallstones about 80% of the time in the U.S., with the rest as a result of viral and bacterial infections, drugs, blockage of the pancreatic duct, trauma or surgery to the abdomen, elevated calcium levels, 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. More than half the 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.) Very rarely, patients can have chronic pancreatitis that tends to run in families.

Medically updated by Cynthia Haines, MD , WebMD, August 2005.

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