What is Pancreatitis?

Learn what pancreatitis looks like in children and how it affects them. You will also learn the difference between acute and chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a large organ in the upper left abdomen (belly area) behind the stomach. The pancreas makes hormones and enzymes that help control blood sugar and digest fats, protein and carbohydrates. There are two types of pancreatitis: acute pancreatitis (sudden and curable) and chronic pancreatitis (long-lasting and not always curable).

Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly. The inflammation usually lasts only days or weeks. Sometimes, acute pancreatitis goes away on its own without treatment.

Chronic pancreatitis is a chronic (long-lasting) form of pancreatitis. Over time, long-term inflammation can damage the pancreas. In many cases, chronic pancreatitis is caused by multiple past cases of acute pancreatitis (recurrent acute pancreatitis).

Causes of Pancreatitis in Children

Children often develop acute pancreatitis when gallstones block the bile duct that passes through the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can develop as a result of recurrent (repeated) acute pancreatitis.

What are common causes of pancreatitis?

The most common cause of pancreatitis is gallstone disease. Gallstones are small, hardened pieces of bile (digestive fluid made by the liver), cholesterol (a waxy substance in the blood) and calcium in the gallbladder (a small pouch under the liver). Pancreatitis can develop when gallstones block the bile duct (a tube that carries bile from the liver and gallbladder through the pancreas and into the duodenum, or the first part of the small intestine).

What are the risk factors for pancreatitis?

While the cause of pancreatitis can be unclear, there are certain factors that can raise your child’s risk of developing the condition. These risk factors include:

  • Family or personal history of pancreatitis
  • Previous trauma (injury) to the abdomen (belly area)
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Certain metabolic conditions or abnormalities of the digestive organs
  • High fat levels or very high calcium levels in the blood
  • Cystic fibrosis (a genetic condition)
  • Certain medications
  • Heavy or long-term alcohol use

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Pancreatitis 

The symptoms of acute and chronic pancreatitis can be similar. Below, you will learn the symptoms of each type of pancreatitis.

Signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Upper abdominal (belly area) pain that lasts hours or days
  • Abdominal pain that gets worse after eating
  • Abdominal pain that spreads to the back or the chest
  • Tenderness in the abdomen
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Yellowing of the skin or the eyes

Signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Chronic weight loss (even when your child is eating normally)
  • Diarrhea
  • Oily, pale and chalky stools
  • Trouble or inability to digest food
  • Diabetes

How do doctors test for pancreatitis?

Testing for pancreatitis can include:

  • Blood tests
  • Diagnostic imaging tests, like X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or ultrasounds
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), an imaging test that uses an endoscope (a small, thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end) to see inside the body and check the pancreas
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (imaging of the pancreas with an ultrasound and endoscope)

Treatment Options

Pancreatitis is often treated with medication, fasting or fluids through an IV. Below, you will learn how doctors treat acute and chronic pancreatitis.

Treatment usually focuses on controlling pain and reducing inflammation. Treatments may include:

  • Fasting to help the pancreas recover and to reduce the inflammation
  • Pain medication to reduce pain
  • Medication with pancreatic enzymes to help digestion
  • Vitamins A, E, D and K
  • Fluids through an IV so that your child’s body can stay hydrated while it heals the pancreas
  • Treating conditions that caused your child’s pancreatitis (such as gallstone disease)
  • For certain cases of pancreatitis, surgery to clear or drain the blocked bile duct

Surgery for Chronic Pancreatitis

When pancreatitis must be treated with surgery, the doctor will typically perform pancreas surgery or gallbladder surgery. They may also clear a blockage in a bile duct. Below, you will learn the different types of surgery that can help with pancreatitis.

Surgery works best for children who have certain metabolic conditions or abnormalities of the digestive organs. The care team can talk with you about whether surgery is a good treatment option for your child.

The most common types of surgery for pancreatitis include:

  • Pancreas surgery to drain fluid from the pancreas or remove diseased tissue.
  • Pancreatecomy with islet cell autotransplant. This is when doctors move islet cells (groups of cells in the pancreas that are making hormones too early) into the liver.
  • Gallbladder surgery to remove the gallbladder. This can help prevent more gallstones from forming.
  • Clearing of the obstruction to the bile duct.
  • Endoscopy (an imaging test that uses an endoscope, a skinny, flexible tube with a camera on the end, to see inside the body and check the pancreas).