Pancreatitis is a painful condition that can be severe enough to cause death.
If you suspect that you have pancreatitis or you have been diagnosed with it, you may be wondering what danger signs to look out for and when you should worry about your condition.
In this article, we tell you everything you need to know.
We cover the definition of pancreatitis, tell you its signs and symptoms, and discuss danger signs that occur when you need to worry about pancreatitis.
We also give you some tips that can help you speed up recovery if you are battling this painful condition.
What is pancreatitis?
The pancreas is an important gland located behind your stomach, in the upper left area of your abdomen. It has two major functions.
The first is the production and release of hormones that help to regulate your blood sugar – insulin and glucagon.
The second is the release of digestive enzymes that help to break down food. These include lipase, which helps to digest fats, amylase, which helps to digest carbohydrates, and proteases, which help to digest proteins.
The term pancreatitis refers to a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Most of the time, this inflammation occurs as a result of the pancreatic duct being blocked.
When the pancreatic duct is blocked, the enzymes from the pancreas cannot be released into your digestive tract to break down food.
If they remain in the pancreas longer than they should, these enzymes can get activated and start to digest pancreatic tissue and other surrounding tissue, leading to inflammation.
Several conditions can lead to blockage of the pancreatic duct. These include gallstones, alcohol abuse, cystic fibrosis, and pancreatic cancer.
There are also some factors that can increase your risk of getting pancreatitis, e.g., obesity and cigarette smoking.
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis refers to when the inflammation is short-term and resolves within a few days or weeks. Chronic pancreatitis refers to long-term recurring inflammation which may last for months to years.
Studies show that acute pancreatitis is more common and accounts for approximately 275,000 hospital stays in the US annually.
Chronic pancreatitis, on the other hand, results in around 86,000 hospital stays each year.
Signs and symptoms
While the two types of pancreatitis have similar features, there are a few differences in the nature of their signs and symptoms.
For acute pancreatitis, symptoms usually occur suddenly and clear up quickly. The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is obstruction of the pancreatic duct by gallstones.
Acute pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen – acute pancreatitis pain may radiate to the back or feel like a band around your upper abdomen.
- Swelling or tenderness of the upper abdomen
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- A fast heart rate
Acute pancreatitis can be mild or severe depending on whether complications such as kidney injury and death of pancreatic tissue (necrotizing pancreatitis) occur.
Severe acute pancreatitis can progress to chronic pancreatitis. The risk of this happening is higher if you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol excessively.
In fact, alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, with 40-70% of cases being associated with it.
The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis last longer than those of acute. The recurrent inflammation may lead to irreversible damage and scarring of the pancreas, which can affect its usual functions – blood sugar control and the breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
Signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Abdominal pain – the pain can last for minutes to hours. It can also be constant. It is usually worse after eating or when lying down on your back.
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Losing weight without meaning to
- Steatorrhea – greasy, smelly stools that occur because of a lack of lipase which helps to break down fats.
Sometimes, people with chronic pancreatitis have no signs or symptoms until they develop complications.
When to worry about pancreatitis
If you have never been diagnosed with pancreatitis and you have a sudden onset of upper abdominal pain, fever, nausea, or any of the other symptoms of acute pancreatitis that we discussed, you should visit the hospital as soon as possible.
It is always best to see a healthcare provider because severe acute pancreatitis can be fatal. With severe acute pancreatitis, you may need intensive care and surgery.
If you are wondering how to tell the difference between mild and severe and when to worry about pancreatitis, here are some danger signs to be aware of:
- Severe abdominal pain that lasts for 20 minutes or more
- Feeling confused
- Very high fever (103 F/39.4 C or higher)
- Excessive vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Urinating less frequently than normal
- Difficulty breathing
Signs your pancreatitis is getting worse
Chronic pancreatitis is a progressive condition that can worsen over time. With increasing damage to the pancreas, there is a decrease in the function of your pancreas which can cause certain complications and a worsening of your condition.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you may have certain signs and symptoms intermittently. However, you need to look out for changes in your usual signs and symptoms and take note of any new ones.
A change might indicate that your condition is becoming worse or that you are developing a complication.
Here are some common complications to watch out for and their corresponding signs and symptoms:
Because it can affect the ability of the pancreas to produce hormones like insulin, chronic pancreatitis can cause diabetes and lead to signs and symptoms like excessive urination, thirst, and sweet-smelling urine.
Chronic pancreatitis can lead to nutritional deficiencies because it makes it difficult for your body to break down and absorb food particles.
This is particularly true for fat-soluble vitamins because there is difficulty breaking down and absorbing fats. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Each of these vitamins has various functions in your body, and deficiencies can lead to an array of signs and symptoms.
- Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness.
- Vitamin D deficiency can cause osteoporosis or osteopenia.
- A deficiency in vitamin E can affect your vision and cause anemia.
- Vitamin K deficiency can cause clotting problems and result in bleeding.
Because of repeated inflammation, people with chronic pancreatitis are at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Signs and symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), pale stools, dark urine, and itchy skin.
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What to do if you have pancreatitis
If you have acute pancreatitis, there are certain things you can do to hasten your recovery and prevent it from happening again. The same goes for certain causes of chronic pancreatitis.
Adjust your diet
With pancreatitis, it is important to eat a low-fat diet. Eating fatty foods such as full-fat milk and fried foods puts stress on your pancreas to release lipase.
This can worsen symptoms of both acute and chronic pancreatitis and delay recovery.
Eat more whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. You should also consider switching to low-fat or nonfat dairy or try dairy alternatives.
Include foods rich in antioxidants, e.g., berries and citrus fruits, in your diet. This may help combat inflammation and speed up recovery.
You should also consider eating smaller meals with more frequency throughout the day. This will be easier for your pancreas to handle and may help to prevent malnutrition.
Stay away from alcohol
Alcohol is believed to cause pancreatic secretions to become thicker, which increases the chance of the pancreatic duct getting blocked.
If you have pancreatitis, it is best to abstain from alcohol. Consumption can worsen symptoms of pancreatitis and can increase the risk of it recurring.
Obesity is a risk factor for developing pancreatitis, and it can also worsen the condition. Being obese increases your risk of developing gallstones.
As such, if you have experienced acute pancreatitis, it puts you at risk of having another episode.
Losing weight can be a challenging process, but it is well worth it as it also decreases your risk of developing other conditions, including heart disease and cancer.
Use digestive enzymes
Using artificial digestive enzymes may help relieve your digestive symptoms and improve the absorption of nutrients while your pancreas heals from acute pancreatitis. Using these may also help you combat nutritional deficiencies if you suffer from chronic pancreatitis.
You can buy digestive enzymes over the counter at most pharmacies. It is best to go with one that has a combination of lipase, amylase, and protease to encourage the absorption of all the macronutrients.
Pancreatitis can cause vomiting and diarrhea, which increases fluid loss and, consequently, increases your fluid requirement.
Drinking more fluids will help you remain well-hydrated and may shorten your recovery period.
Yes. If you have symptoms of pancreatitis, it is best to go to a hospital as soon as possible to get assessed and to start treatment early.
Acute pancreatitis can cause a lot of fluid loss, and dehydration can lead to serious complications like kidney failure. As such, early replacement of fluids, particularly within the first 24 hours, is necessary.
Getting fluids intravenously helps prevent dehydration and promotes sufficient blood flow to your body’s organs, which encourages healing.
Signs and symptoms that point to severe pancreatitis include dizziness, confusion, high-grade fever, chills, profuse sweating, slurred speech, decreased frequency of urination, and difficulty breathing.
If you think you have pancreatitis, it is always best to see a healthcare provider who will assess you, make a diagnosis, and determine the severity of your condition.
To be safe, you should always go to the hospital when you have symptoms of acute pancreatitis.
While some cases of acute pancreatitis are mild, some people have severe life-threatening pancreatitis that needs critical care.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, speak to your healthcare provider if you notice any changes in your baseline signs and symptoms or if you have any new ones.
Pancreatitis is a painful condition that occurs when the pancreas is inflamed. It can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis can be mild or severe, depending on the presence or absence of complications.
Severe acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening. Danger signs to look out for include dizziness, confusion, and profuse sweating.
You need to visit a hospital as soon as possible if you suspect that you have acute pancreatitis, especially if you have danger signs.
Chronic inflammation can be complicated by complications such as diabetes, nutritional deficiencies, and cancer.
If you have chronic pancreatitis and notice changes in your usual symptoms, you should speak with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.