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2nd March, 20217 min read

Acute pancreatitis: All you need to know

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 23/01/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is acute pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a small organ that sits behind your stomach in your upper tummy. It makes the hormone insulin as well as enzymes that help digest food.

Acute pancreatitis happens when your pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time – usually a few days. It’s a different condition to chronic pancreatitis, where the inflammation continues for a long time.

In most cases, acute pancreatitis gets better without causing complications or long-lasting damage to the pancreas, but a small number of people can develop serious and life-threatening complications.

Acute pancreatitis is a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time.

Most people with acute pancreatitis improve within a week and experience no further problems, but severe cases can have serious complications and can even be fatal.

What are the symptoms of acute pancreatitis?

If you have acute pancreatitis, you may suddenly develop a really bad pain in the middle of your tummy.

This pain usually builds up over a few hours, is constant and may travel into your back. Eating can make it worse, while leaning forward may make it better.

While pain is a common symptom, some people with acute pancreatitis don’t develop any pain at all.

Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of appetite
  • a temperature of 38°C or higher
  • a tender or swollen tummy

When to see a doctor

Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening if it’s not treated quickly, so see a doctor if you suddenly develop really bad tummy pain or think you may have acute pancreatitis.

What causes acute pancreatitis?

Many different things can cause acute pancreatitis, but the most common causes are gallstones and drinking too much alcohol. In fact, it’s thought that more than 6 in 10 cases of acute pancreatitis are caused by gallstones or alcohol.

When acute pancreatitis is caused by gallstones, the pain usually begins after eating a large meal. If it’s caused by alcohol, it’s common for the pain to appear 6 to 12 hours after drinking a lot of alcohol.

Other less common causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • high blood fat levels – known as hypertriglyceridemia
  • accidental damage to the pancreas during surgery and medical procedures
  • certain types of medication, such as some antibiotics or chemotherapy medication
  • a viral infection, like mumps or measles
  • genetics – in some cases, acute pancreatitis is inherited

It’s also possible to get acute pancreatitis with no clear cause.

What causes severe acute pancreatitis?

While most people with acute pancreatitis develop a mild version, some develop severe acute pancreatitis. It’s not known why this sometimes happens, but factors that may raise your risk of severe acute pancreatitis include:

  • being 70 or older
  • drinking at least 2 alcoholic drinks a day
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • having certain genes

Most cases of acute pancreatitis are closely linked to gallstones and alcohol consumption, although the exact cause is not always clear.

How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?

A doctor may suspect acute pancreatitis based on your symptoms and a physical examination.

You will usually need a blood test – and sometimes, imaging tests like a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis.

If these tests show you have acute pancreatitis, you may need more tests to help find out the cause and check how bad the inflammation is. These tests can include:

  • imaging tests, such as a CT, MRI or ultrasound scan
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – a procedure used to look closely at the pancreas and remove gallstones if they’re causing the inflammation

How is acute pancreatitis treated?

Treatment for acute pancreatitis usually focuses on treating the cause of the inflammation and supporting your body’s functions until the inflammation has passed. If you have acute pancreatitis, you’ll typically need to be admitted to hospital for close monitoring and supportive treatment, including:

  • fluids – given directly into a vein
  • painkillers
  • oxygen

In some cases, a doctor may ask you not to eat for a few days to avoid putting strain on your pancreas. If this happens, you may need to be given nutrients through a feeding tube (nasogastric tube) that’s passed into your stomach through your nose.

Most people with acute pancreatitis get better and can leave hospital after a few days.

But if you have severe acute pancreatitis, it can take longer for you to get better. Your risk of developing serious complications is also much higher with severe acute pancreatitis, so you may be admitted to an intensive care unit for additional treatment.

If your pancreatitis is caused by gallstones, you’ll need treatment to remove the gallstone, or in some cases, your gallbladder. Read more about how gallstones are treated and how to prevent them from returning in the future.

And if you have pancreatitis because of alcohol, you’ll need to avoid drinking alcohol even after you’ve recovered. This is important for preventing more damage to your pancreas in the future. Speak to a doctor for advice on how to safely stop drinking alcohol and where to get support if you need it.

Complications of acute pancreatitis

While most cases of acute pancreatitis get better within a few days, it’s possible to develop complications in more serious cases. These complications include:

  • pseudocysts – fluid-filled sacs that form on the surface of the pancreas and can burst or cause an infection
  • infected pancreatic necrosis – serious inflammation can cut off blood supply to parts of the pancreas, which causes those parts to die and become infected
  • chronic pancreatitis – ongoing pancreatitis caused by getting acute pancreatitis many times
  • systemic inflammatory response syndrome – inflammation in the pancreas that spreads through the whole body

How can I prevent acute pancreatitis?

For some people, acute pancreatitis is something that happens once. But if the cause is known, you can help reduce your risk of it happening again by taking the steps below.

  1. If the cause was gallstones, you can make lifestyle changes like:
  • losing weight (if you’re overweight)
  • exercising often
  • eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg
  • avoiding fatty foods

Your doctor may also recommend a procedure to remove the gallstones or your gallbladder.

  1. Regardless of the cause, you should avoid drinking alcohol for a few weeks after you’ve recovered, and then avoid drinking too much alcohol. Read more about safe alcohol levels.

  2. If your pancreatitis was caused by drinking alcohol, you can help prevent it from returning by not drinking alcohol at all.

  3. You may also need to avoid taking medications that caused the inflammation (speak to a doctor before stopping any medication).

  4. If your pancreatitis was caused by high blood fat levels, you may help prevent future episodes by taking medication to lower these fat levels.

Key points

  • acute pancreatitis is a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time (most people feel better within a week)
  • the main symptom of acute pancreatitis is a really bad pain around the top of your tummy, which comes on suddenly
  • you’re more likely to get a severe type of acute pancreatitis if you’re 70 or older
  • acute pancreatitis is often caused by gallstones and drinking too much alcohol
  • eating a low-fat, balanced diet and cutting down on alcohol can help reduce your risk of developing acute pancreatitis
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