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What causes pancreatitis?

2-minute read

The pancreas is an organ that sits behind the stomach. Pancreatitis occurs when there is inflammation in the pancreas that may cause swelling, bleeding, and damage to the organ and its blood vessels. This may cause a leakage of digestive juices from pancreas into surrounding tissue and cause more damage.

The two most common causes of pancreatitis are gallstones and heavy drinking of alcohol. Around half of all people with acute pancreatitis have been heavy drinkers, which makes alcohol consumption one of the most common causes.

Gallstones cause most of the remaining cases. Gallstones are like little pebbles in the gall bladder, an organ which is next to the pancreas. The gallbladder and the pancreas both help to digest food and share a common entry tube (duct) to the gut. The stones can block this duct from the pancreas, so the juices can’t escape which causes the inflammation.

Other less common causes of pancreatitis include:

  • a heavy blow to the abdomen, such as in a car accident
  • surgery to the pancreas
  • some medicines
  • inherited disorders
  • infections
  • autoimmune disease, such as lupus
  • cystic fibrosis or mutations of the cystic fibrosis gene
  • high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), which may be caused by an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
  • high levels of triglyceride in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • cancer in the pancreas

You are more likely to get pancreatitis if you smoke or if other people in your family have had it.

In some people, no cause is ever found.

Sources:

UpToDate (Patient information: Acute pancreatitis (Beyond the basics)), UpToDate (Patient information: Chronic pancreatitis (Beyond the basics)), Better Health Channel (Pancreatitis)

Last reviewed: September 2018

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