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What is pancreatitis?

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About pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can lead to pain, vomiting and elevated pancreatic enzymes in the blood.

What causes pancreatitis?

The main causes of pancreatitis in children include:
  • Abdominal trauma
  • Gallstones
  • Medications (including some anti-seizure, chemotherapy and antibiotic drugs) and toxins
  • Blockages
  • Genetic causes
Discovering the cause of recurrent pancreatitis can be challenging, and sometimes the cause is unknown.

How often does pancreatitis occur?

Pancreatitis is rare in children. Annually, this condition leads to approximately 13,000 pediatric emergency room visits and about 5,500 pediatric hospital admissions across the United States. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin treats about 100 cases a year.

How does pancreatitis develop?

Acute pancreatitis usually comes on suddenly. An episode can last just a day or two or go on for several weeks. The typical patient recovers within a week.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

Symptoms include:
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

Who is at risk of developing this condition?

Pancreatitis can affect anyone. In younger patients, the inflammation is more likely to be caused by a genetic or an anatomic reason, such as a blockage in the pancreas. Patients with cystic fibrosis may more likely to develop pancreatitis, but this condition affects only a small subset of patients with CF.

Why is pancreatitis a concern?

Although a pancreatitis attack is usually over quickly, it can make children feel very sick. Most patients with acute pancreatitis get better and have no further pancreatic problems, but around 10 percent develop chronic pancreatitis. The pancreas produces digestive enzymes that are important for absorbing food, so chronic inflammation can lead to pancreatic insufficiency, malabsorption and failure to gain weight or weight loss.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed/evaluated?

Patients are often evaluated in the emergency room when they arrive with severe abdominal pain. The doctor might order an abdominal ultrasound or other imaging test to screen for gallstones. If pancreatitis is suspected, your child’s doctor will order blood tests to measure lipase and amylase, two pancreatic enzymes that can leak into the blood at higher levels when the pancreas is inflamed.

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?

The treatment for acute cases is usually fluid (to prevent dehydration from vomiting) and pain management. If pancreatitis reoccurs, then your child’s doctor will look for an underlying problem, such as a structural abnormality in the pancreas or a genetic cause. Treatment varies depending on the diagnosis, but it could involve endoscopy to stretch a narrowed duct or surgery to remove the gallbladder.

What happens after treatment?

In 90 percent of cases, children recover completely. If pancreatitis becomes a chronic problem, your doctor will work to figure out the cause and see if anything can be done to prevent future episodes. Your doctor might use a pancreatic stimulation to test for pancreatic insufficiency and stool tests to check for malabsorption.

When should you contact a physician?

If your child is experiencing severe abdominal pain and vomiting, consult your pediatrician.

What is the long-term outlook for pancreatitis?

Most patients with acute pancreatitis get better and have no further pancreatic problems, but about 10 percent of patients develop chronic pancreatitis. That can lead to pancreatic insufficiency and malabsorption, which can affect a child’s nutrition and growth.

How do I live with pancreatitis?

Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids and takes his or her pain medication during a pancreatitis attack. If the pancreatitis reoccurs or your child’s growth slows, consult your pediatrician to make sure your child is absorbing food properly.
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