What is Pancreatitis?

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, a large gland located behind the stomach. The pancreas produces digestion-related enzymes and the hormone insulin for blood sugar regulation. When enzymes build up in the pancreas, the flat, leaf-shaped organ begins to destruct and may gradually lose its functioning.

There are several types of pancreatitis, including acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms of pancreatitis may be short-term (acute) or last for years (chronic), and flare-ups may range in intensity and frequency from moderate to severe. Common pancreatitis symptoms include abdominal pain radiating to the back, nausea, changes in stool, and jaundice.

Alcohol use, gallstones, elevated triglycerides, severe viral or bacterial infections, high blood calcium levels, and certain medications may be potential causes of pancreatitis. There are also risk factors, including having a family history of pancreatic disease and alcohol abuse.

Pancreatitis can be very painful and even life-threatening and may lead to serious complications, such as heart, lung or kidney failure, if left untreated. A digestive care specialist or expert gastroenterologist may provide specialized treatments and personalized therapies to manage and monitor the disorder.

Types of Pancreatitis

  • Acute pancreatitis causes sudden pain and inflammation that may increase after eating. The condition may last for several days if left untreated and may be caused by alcohol use, gallstones, high triglycerides, certain medications, infections, or trauma. Symptoms include upper abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Chronic pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas has ongoing inflammation, which causes injury and scarring to the organ. Symptoms may include abdominal pain that increases with eating and drinking, back pain, changes in stool, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting. Some may not experience symptoms until they have complications. Hereditary diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or alcohol abuse, may cause this progressive disease.
    • Autoimmune pancreatitis, a type of chronic pancreatitis, is relatively uncommon. It is caused by the immune system cells attacking the pancreas and shares similar symptoms with pancreatic cancer.
    • Hereditary or familial pancreatitis is a chronic genetic condition where two or more family members have a history of pancreatitis. This condition may be detected using genetic testing. Having hereditary pancreatitis may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatitis


There are different symptoms associated with pancreatitis, which may indicate whether it is due to an acute flare-up or an ongoing condition called chronic pancreatitis. It is important to know that certain signs of pancreatitis, such as severe abdominal pain or profuse vomiting, may indicate serious disease and require immediate care and hospitalization.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include:

  • Severe, steady pain in the upper/middle part of the abdomen, which often radiates into the back
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating and tenderness
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Low-grade fever
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Onset of diabetes mellitus
  • Diarrhea and oily stools
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms of severe pancreatitis that require immediate medical attention may include:

  • Severe pain/tenderness in the abdomen
  • Fever/chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fast heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Jaundice

What Causes Pancreatitis?


It is not always clear what causes pancreatitis. Specific diagnostic tests, such as imaging or blood tests, may be used to determine if it is pancreatitis. Idiopathic pancreatitis is pancreatitis with no apparent cause. Generally, the most common causes of pancreatitis are alcohol abuse and gallstones.

Pancreatitis may be caused by:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Gallstones
  • Elevated triglyceride levels
  • Some medications, such as estrogen supplements and some diuretics (water pills)
  • High calcium blood levels (hypercalcemia)
  • Genetic causes, such as cystic fibrosis
  • Injury to the abdomen
  • Severe viral or bacterial infection
  • Structural problems of the pancreatic and bile ducts

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

Several risk factors for pancreatitis may cause ongoing symptoms or acute pancreatitis, including inflammation and abdominal pain, to develop. It is important to speak to a healthcare professional if you have a family history of pancreatitis or certain risk factors, such as alcoholism, to monitor your condition.

Common risk factors include:

  • Stones in bile ducts/gallstones
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Medication use
  • Abdominal trauma

Other risk factors may include:

  • Family history
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreas abnormalities
  • Autoimmune Disorders
  • Poor nutrition
  • Surgical procedures
  • Infection



There are several complications of both acute and chronic pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be serious and even life-threatening if left untreated and may increase the risk of developing chronic diseases, including diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatitis complications may include:



Some steps may prevent acute pancreatitis or reduce the likelihood of developing chronic pancreatitis and its associated symptoms. Your healthcare provider may provide an individualized care plan to reduce pancreatitis flare-ups or complications of the disease.

Pancreatitis may be prevented by:

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Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Pancreatitis Care

Pancreatitis requires specialized treatment to manage symptoms, prevent disease progression, and monitor any complications. At NewYork-Presbyterian, our pancreatitis care specialists and gastroenterologists offer a full range of support, surgery and surgery-free therapies, and long-term treatment plans. Contact us to make an appointment at an office near you.