Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas.

The pancreas is the large gland located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and hormones.

In pancreatitis, enzymes that normally are released into the digestive tract begin to damage the pancreas itself. The gland becomes swollen and inflamed. More enzymes are released into the surrounding tissues and bloodstream.

As a result, digestion slows down and becomes painful. Other body functions can be affected. The pancreas can become permanently damaged and scarred if attacks are severe, prolonged or frequent.

It is not known exactly why the enzymes start to damage the pancreas. But there are several known trigger of acute pancreatitis.

One of the most common causes of acute pancreatitis is gallstones. Gallstones that escape from the gallbladder can block the pancreatic duct. (The pancreatic duct delivers digestive enzymes from the pancreas to the small intestine.) When the pancreatic duct becomes blocked, enzymes can't flow properly. They can back up into the pancreas. This causes the pancreas to become inflamed.

The other leading cause of pancreatitis is heavy alcohol use. Most people who drink alcohol never develop pancreatitis. But certain people will develop pancreatitis after drinking large amounts of alcohol. Alcohol use may be over a period of time or in a single binge. Alcohol combined with smoking increases the risk of acute pancreatitis.

Another common cause of acute pancreatitis is a complication of a medical procedure called ERCP. ERCP is performed through an endoscope. This is a flexible tube with a small camera and a light on one end and an eyepiece on the other. ERCP is used to identify stones and tumors and to view ducts in the pancreas, liver and gallbladder.

Other factors that sometimes can cause pancreatitis include:

  • Use of any of a wide variety of medications, such as

    • Sulfa drugs

    • Water pills (hydrochlorothiazide, others)

    • Immunosuppressants (azathioprine)

    • Drugs used to treat HIV

  • Abdominal surgery

  • Severe trauma

  • Metabolic conditions, such as high blood levels of calcium or triglycerides

  • Some infections, such as mumps or viral hepatitis

In many cases, no cause can be found.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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