Acute Pancreatitis

The National Pancreas Foundation (NPF) has designated UVA as an NPF Pancreatitis Center, due to the high quality of our patient care. Read more about this recognition.

What is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a long, flat, pear-shaped organ located behind the stomach. It makes digestive enzymes and hormones, including insulin. Acute pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that occurs suddenly and resolves with proper treatment.

Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes are activated in the pancreas instead of the small intestine. Acute pancreatitis has several causes. In some cases, the cause may be unknown.

Known causes of acute pancreatitis include

  • Obstruction of the pancreatic duct from:
    • Gallstones
    • Cancer
    • Diseases of the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine, where the pancreas empties
  • Alcohol
  • Surgery or trauma to the pancreas
  • Certain medications, such as those that treat cancer
  • Ischemia — insufficient blood supply to the pancreas
  • Complications of having endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography


Factors that may increase your risk of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Family history of pancreatitis
  • Personal history of previous acute pancreatitis
  • Congenital conditions, such as pancreas divisum
  • HIV or other viral infections, such as mumps or hepatitis B
  • Bacterial and parasitic infections
  • Hypertriglyceridemia — elevated blood triglyceride levels
  • Taking certain medications, such as those that treat high blood pressure
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Hyperlipidemia — elevated blood fat levels
  • Hypercalcemia — elevated blood calcium levels
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Scorpion bite
  • Occupational exposure to certain toxins


Symptoms may occur one time or many times. Repeated flare ups of symptoms are known as attacks.

Acute pancreatitis may cause:

  • Severe pain in the center of the upper abdomen that:
    • Sometimes spreads into the upper back
    • Is often made worse by eating, walking,or lying down on your back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Low grade fever
  • Jaundice — yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Rarely, shock — a medical emergency in which the organs and tissues don't receive adequate blood or fluids

Untreated acute pancreatitis may progress into chronic pancreatitis, a serious condition where the pancreas becomes permanently damaged.

healthy pancreas compared to inflamed pancreas
Acute pancreatitis Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will ask how much alcohol you drink and what medications you take. Diagnosis can be determined by your symptoms and results from blood tests.

Other tests may include:

  • Blood tests—to look for elevated levels the digestive enzymes amylase and lipase
  • Urine tests

Imaging tests can be used to evaluate the pancreas and nearby structures. Imaging tests include:

  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Abdominal CT scan
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

Treating Pancreatitis

In most cases, acute pancreatitis isn't severe and can be treated. Treatment for acute pancreatitis depends on the severity of the attack and what is causing it.


Generally, acute pancreatitis treatment requires hospitalization. Fluid and nutritional support can be administered by IV while your pancreas heals. During this time, you will be unable to eat or drink.

If you have severe pancreatitis, you may need a nasogastric tube. A long, thin tube is threaded through your nose and into your stomach for feeding.

You may also start treatment for any underlying causes of your pancreatitis.


Your doctor may recommend:

  • Antibiotics — to treat any infections
  • Pain medications
  • Protease inhibitors — to reduce the effects of digestive enzymes
  • Insulin — to help regulate blood glucose levels


In general, surgery isn't necessary for mild pancreatitis. It may be necessary when medical treatment doesn't work for more severe cases. 

Surgical procedures include:

  • Necrosectomy — removal of dying or dead (necrotic) pancreatic tissue
  • Percutaneous catheter drainage — one or many thin tubes are inserted into the abdomen to drain fluid from the pancreas
  • ECRP — removes gallstones or opens any collapsed ducts
  • Cholecystectomy — removal of the gallbladder


To help reduce your chance of getting acute pancreatitis, take these steps:

  • Limit intake of alcohol to a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
  • If you have hyperlipidemia, restrict your intake of fat and follow your doctor’s treatment plan to lower your lipids.
  • Increase your vegetable consumption.
  • Increase your activity level to help lose excess weight. Aim for 30 minutes per day on most days of the week.
  • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date. This includes mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and varicella.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.