Pain in the upper part of your abdomen is often the first symptom of pancreatitis, which is the clinical name for inflammation of the pancreas. Pain might come on slowly or relatively quickly, and it might feel sharp or faint. You may also have other symptoms, like nausea and vomiting.
Most people just have a single attack of pancreatitis, sometimes called “acute” pancreatitis. This could range from relatively mild to more severe.
Other people have long-term inflammation of the pancreas, sometimes called “chronic pancreatitis.” People with chronic pancreatitis sometimes experience permanent damage to their pancreas over time. This can lead to additional symptoms because the pancreas can’t perform its normal function of secreting certain hormones and digestive enzymes.
Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of pancreatitis. This is usually in the upper part of the abdomen, but you might feel it more around your belly button. Often the pain will spread to your back. This pain may be mild or more severe and become more constant over time. You might find that it worsens when you eat, especially after a fatty meal. Leaning forward may temporarily make it feel a little better.
Other common symptoms of pancreatitis can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased heart rate
- Faster breathing
- Swollen or tender stomach area
- Excess sweating
Jaundice with yellowed skin or eyes is a rare but important possible symptom of pancreatitis. It may indicate a blockage in the normal flow of bile produced by the liver. If you think you may be experiencing jaundice, seek emergency medical care immediately.
Other symptoms can occur in pancreatitis too. This might happen if the pancreatitis is more severe and starts to affect other body systems.
The pancreas normally works to produce insulin and other hormones, as well as certain digestive enzymes. Additional symptoms can also occur if your pancreas can no longer effectively perform these tasks due to severe damage. This is most commonly due to frequent and long-term alcohol consumption, but can also be contributed to various autoimmune conditions, cystic fibrosis, and high levels of calcium or fats in the blood.
Non-Severe Acute Pancreatitis Symptoms
In acute pancreatitis, a person experiences a sudden bout of inflammation of the pancreas, causing symptoms like intense pain in the upper abdomen. About 80% of people never get another bout of symptoms again.
Most cases of acute pancreatitis are categorized as mild, although they are definitely very uncomfortable. You might need a short stay in the hospital to help heal your pancreas, but you aren’t in life-threatening danger.
Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting are common. You might also have symptoms like bloating, fever, or a fast heartbeat. Usually, you’ll feel pretty sick if you are having a bout of acute pancreatitis, and you’ll know you need to see a doctor right away.
Severe Acute Pancreatitis Symptoms
About 10% of people with acute pancreatitis do get severe symptoms or complications. In some cases, people even die from severe cases. A person might have a severe episode of pancreatitis, even if it’s the first time they’ve had it.
In addition to the more common symptoms of acute pancreatitis, like abdominal pain, someone with severe acute pancreatitis might have problems such as the following:
- Kidney failure, causing decreased urine input, swelling, or other symptoms
- Altered consciousness (a change in your normal mental state)
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome, causing difficulty breathing
- Abnormal blood clotting, which can potentially damage multiple organs
- Death of the pancreatic tissue, called pancreatic necrosis
In some cases, these problems can lead to death if not adequately treated. For example, someone with pancreatic necrosis might develop sepsis, a life-threatening overwhelming response to infection.
Whereas someone with mild acute pancreatitis might need to be hospitalized for a few days, someone with severe acute pancreatitis might need weeks of hospitalization.
Chronic Pancreatitis Symptoms
Chronic pancreatitis usually happens when a person has had multiple episodes of acute pancreatitis that start to permanently damage the pancreas. Here, the symptoms tend to be more chronic (e.g., abdominal pain that doesn’t really go away) because the pancreas has become permanently scarred.
However, sometimes a person can have chronic pancreatitis (seen on medical imaging) even if they don’t notice any symptoms at all, at least at first. About 10-20% of people with chronic pancreatitis don't experience symptoms.
One unusual occurrence is that the pain sometimes seems to improve after a person has had pancreatitis for a while and much of their pancreas has been permanently damaged. So if you’ve had chronic pancreatitis and your abdominal pain doesn’t seem to be as bad now, that isn’t necessarily a good sign.
People with chronic pancreatitis are also more likely to develop symptoms because the pancreas can’t perform its normal functions anymore. For example, you might eventually develop:
- Greasy, foul-smelling stools
- Weight loss
- Deficiencies in certain vitamins, like vitamin A
- Diabetes (type 3c; slightly different from the more common type 1 or type 2)
However, people with severe acute pancreatitis sometimes develop some of these issues as well.
Symptoms in Children
Pancreatitis in children is less common than it is in adults. There are about 10 to 15 cases of acute pancreatitis per 100,000 children each year, compared to 30 to 40 cases per 100,000 people in the population as a whole.
Symptoms in children are very similar to symptoms in adults. However, more data needs to be gathered on acute pancreatitis in children; researchers have tried to put together severity criteria but have not reached a consensus.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
You should seek emergency care if you have serious symptoms like severe pain in your abdomen that isn’t going away. If you are feeling very sick, make sure you are seen promptly by a medical professional, especially if you are noticing other problems, like a racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing, jaundice, or decreased urine output.
If your pain isn't severe, and it comes and goes, you should still get it checked out promptly by a medical professional. In this case, you may be able to schedule it with your regular healthcare provider.
A Quick Review
The most common symptom of pancreatitis is abdominal pain, often in the upper part of the abdomen and often radiating to your back. It might come on gradually or more suddenly. The pain might be severe and come with symptoms like nausea, bloating, a rapid heartbeat, and a general feeling of being unwell.
People who have severe acute pancreatitis might get additional symptoms, like difficulty breathing or loss of consciousness. This can signal more significant complications of acute pancreatitis, which sometimes are even life-threatening.
A minority of people who have a bout of acute pancreatitis experience multiple episodes over time, and they may develop pain that doesn’t really go away. This is called chronic pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis are also more likely to develop symptoms because the pancreas can’t work properly, like symptoms from diabetes.
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