Acute pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas that develops quickly. The main symptom is tummy (abdominal) pain. It usually settles in a few days but sometimes it becomes severe and very serious. The most common causes of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and drinking a lot of alcohol.
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis
- Tummy (abdominal) pain, just below the ribs, is the usual main symptom. It usually builds up quickly (over a few hours) and may last for several days. The pain can become severe and is typically felt spreading through to the back. The pain may be sudden and intense, or it may begin as a mild pain that is aggravated by eating and slowly grows worse. However, it is occasionally possible to have acute pancreatitis without any pain. This is more common if you have diabetes or have kidney problems.
- Being sick (vomiting), a high temperature (fever) and generally feeling very unwell are common.
- Your abdomen may become swollen.
- If the pancreatitis becomes severe and other organs become involved (for example, your heart, lungs or kidneys) then various other symptoms may develop. You may become lacking in fluid in the body (dehydrated) and have low blood pressure.
Acute pancreatitis can cause you to be very poorly and can even be life-threatening.
What happens if acute pancreatitis is suspected?
You will need to be admitted to hospital if your doctor suspects that you have acute pancreatitis. There are lots of causes of tummy (abdominal) pain and being sick (vomiting) so tests are done to rule out other problems and to confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests can check the blood level of amylase and/or lipase (these are enzymes made by the pancreas).
Acute pancreatitis treatment
The treatment depends on how bad your attack of acute pancreatitis is. There is no specific treatment that will take the inflammation away. However, in most cases the pancreatitis settles over a few days, although symptoms can get worse before they get better.
- Strong painkillers by injection are usually needed to ease the pain.
- A tube may occasionally also be passed down your nose into your stomach (nasogastric tube) to suck out the fluid from your stomach. This can be useful if you are being sick (vomiting) a lot.
- A nasogastric tube may also be passed into the stomach to feed you, as you will not be able to eat properly.
- A ‘drip’ is needed to give fluid into your body until symptoms settle.
- A catheter – a thin tube going into your bladder to drain urine – is likely to be inserted so the doctors can monitor accurately the amount of urine you are passing.
Less commonly, complications develop and the situation can become very serious. Other treatments that may then be needed include the following:
- Intensive care treatment. If you have a severe attack of pancreatitis then you will be monitored very closely in the intensive care unit.
- A procedure to remove a blocked gallstone if this is found to be the cause.