Pancreatitis is a serious condition causing symptoms of pain and sickness. Treating the condition generally involves admission to hospital. The pancreas is a gland that helps the body break down food. It lies behind the stomach and releases enzymes into the digestive system. It also produces the hormone insulin, which helps control blood-sugar levels.

But when it becomes inflamed, it can lead to pancreatitis.

In this article:

  1. Acute pancreatitis
    - What is acute pancreatitis?
    - Symptoms
    - Diagnosis
    - Treatment
  2. Chronic pancreatitis
    - What is chronic pancreatitis?
    - Symptoms
    - Diagnosis
    - Treatment

Acute pancreatitis

What is acute pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is abdominal discomfort that comes on quickly and can rapidly cause excruciating pain. It usually worsens over a short period of time. The symptoms may feel worse when you lie down and be relieved when you sit forward.

The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones. Gallstones form in the gallbladder but can sometimes get stuck in the bile duct, stopping pancreatic juices from moving around the digestive system. This can damage the pancreas and lead to pancreatitis.

Other causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Infection, either from a parasite or virus
  • Pancreatic injury
  • High blood levels

In terms of gender, women are more likely to develop pancreatitis due by gallstones whereas men are more likely to develop it due to alcohol abuse.

In terms of age, older people are more likely to develop pancreatitis due to gallstones whereas middle-aged people are more likely to develop it due to alcohol abuse.

The condition can affect people of all ages, however.


The main symptom of acute pancreatitis is severe abdominal pain. But it can also cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • General ill-health


Acute pancreatitis can usually be diagnosed from the symptoms described. However, to confirm the diagnosis you will be transferred to a hospital and some tests will be carried out. These may include:

  • A blood test. This will test for the level of enzymes in the bloodstream. Raised enzyme levels can be a good indicator of pancreatitis
  • An abdominal ultrasound. This will check for swelling of the pancreas and the presence of gallstones
  • A CT scan. This is a 3D image and can be used to confirm pancreatitis if an ultrasound proves inconclusive


Acute pancreatitis is treated in hospital in a variety of different ways, depending on the cause and severity of the symptoms. In mild cases, treatment is often painkillers administered by injection. Most people with a mild case are able to leave hospital in 5 – 14 days.

If your condition deteriorates, you may be admitted to an intensive care unit as a precaution against complications. Other treatments include:

  • An operation to remove gallstones, if they have caused the condition
  • An operation to remove damaged areas of the pancreas
  • A course of antibiotics to fight infection

In many cases, the pain will cease within a week. But in a minority of cases, other organs can be damaged by pancreatic enzymes escaping into the bloodstream, causing kidney failure and respiratory problems. This can be fatal and about 25% of people who develop severe acute pancreatitis can die.

Even if the acute pancreatitis was not caused by alcohol, it is recommended that individuals recovering from the condition avoid drinking for at least 6 months.

Chronic pancreatitis

What is chronic pancreatitis?

Chronic pancreatitis is abdominal and back pain caused by a swollen pancreas. Unlike acute pancreatitis, the pain is constant and gets worse after eating. It may start as a mild pain and gradually worsen.


The most common symptom of chronic pancreatitis is constant abdominal pain that may worsen over time. However, it can also cause alarming weight loss, for a number of reasons:

  • Eating increases the pain, so you may be tempted to eat less
  • The pancreas may not be able to produce enough enzymes, meaning food isn’t digested properly
  • Vomiting and sickness, which can reduce appetite

In a majority of cases chronic pancreatitis is caused by long-term alcohol abuse, although in rare cases it may be caused by a predisposed, hereditary condition.


Chronic pancreatitis can be more difficult to diagnose than acute pancreatitis, due to the initial unclear symptoms and constant pain. Therefore, a CT scan or ultrasound may be required to confirm the presence of pancreatitis.


As chronic pancreatitis is caused by long-term alcohol abuse, the most common treatment for the condition is to stop drinking alcohol completely. If you smoke, this should be stopped too, as pancreatic cancer can be the result of smoking.

Other treatments include:

  • Painkillers, to relieve the symptoms
  • Enzyme replacement treatment, as the pancreas may not be able to produce all of the enzymes required for the digestive system

A number of complications may develop as a result of chronic pancreatitis, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Pseudocysts. These are cysts caused by pancreatic fluid collecting when a duct in the pancreas becomes blocked

If someone diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis continues drinking, they risk reducing their life expectancy by up to 20 years.