Pancreatitis: How drinking too much may affect you

pancreasPancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Your pancreas is a fleshy organ located in the center of your gut.

The pancreas’s job is to make digestive chemicals to turn whatever you eat into something that can be absorbed. Your pancreas also produces insulin.

Dawn Sears, MD, Gastroenterologist at Scott & White Healthcare, discusses pancreatitis and outlines the dangers of heavy drinking associated with it.

“If you have pancreatitis, your pancreas becomes inflamed to the point where it releases chemicals on yourself and auto-digests itself,” Dr. Sears explains, “which is why it’s as painful as it is and can be life-threatening, because basically you’re getting a third-degree burn in the very center of your gut.”

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

The signs of pancreatitis are:

  • Severe nausea
  • Sharp pain that goes through your abdomen straight through to your back that’s unrelenting
  • May have fever, but not always
  • May have constipation, but not always

“We recommend immediate medical evaluation if there’s a suspicion of pancreatitis, because you may look perfectly healthy and be feeling fine, and then get very sick very quickly,” cautions Dr. Sears.

Causes of Pancreatitis


There are three primary causes of pancreatitis.

If your pancreatitis is due to heavy or binge drinking, you’ll have to give up alcohol. For the rest of your life.

  1. Alcohol.

    The pancreas is particularly sensitive to alcohol. A single bout of binge drinking can bring about an attack of pancreatitis in an otherwise healthy person.
    According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol damages pancreatic cells and influences metabolic processes involving insulin. When you drink heavily, you put your pancreas at risk.
    Nationally, 70 percent of acute pancreatitis cases are caused by alcoholism or alcohol abuse, according to the NIH.
    Once you’ve had pancreatitis brought on by drinking, you’re more susceptible to getting it again.
    “Some patients have alcoholic pancreatitis. After an initial bout of pancreatitis, set off by alcohol consumption, any time they drink alcohol they are prone to getting pancreatitis again,” notes Dr. Sears.

  2. Gallstones.

    Gallstones in some cases can block the interconnection of drainage tubes that lead to your small bowel, causing a back-up to your pancreas. Because your pancreatic chemicals can’t be released through your urine, they’ll start auto-digesting your pancreas.

  3. Medications.

    A plethora of medications can have as their side effects inflammation of the pancreas, including:

    • Estrogens
    • Steroids
    • NSAIDs
    • Blood pressure medicines
    • Chemotherapy drugs

Two Types of Pancreatitis

Most cases of pancreatitis occur suddenly.

  1. Acute pancreatitis.

    “Acute pancreatitis has a beginning and an end. It often shows up with the abdominal pain that doubles you over, severe nausea, and on CT or imaging you have an abnormal pancreas. It’s usually caused by alcohol or medicine,” explains Dr. Sears.

  2. Chronic pancreatitis.

    With chronic pancreatitis, your pancreas continues to:

    • Function improperly
    • Produce the wrong chemicals
    • Send chemicals down your pancreatic tube

    With chronic pancreatitis, you’re in a persistent state of irritation of the pancreas and lifelong pain. You have the prolonged inability to absorb nutrients from your food.

“The majority of people with acute pancreatitis do not end up with chronic pancreatitis. The way you end up with chronic pancreatitis is if you have multiple bouts of acute pancreatitis,” explains Dr. Sears, “which is why it’s so important to find out the cause of it — whether it’s alcohol, gallstones or medications.”

Treatment of Pancreatitis Treatment for pancreatitis is simple: Don’t eat anything.

“When we eat, we stimulate the pancreas to make more digestive chemicals, and you want to avoid that, because you’d be burning a further hole in your gut,” says Dr. Sears.

Treatment for pancreatitis requires hospitalization. You’ll be given IV fluids for several days up to a week as your pancreas calms down and heals.

“Most patients do fine. Most will not need chronic pancreatic enzyme replacement or special diets or special medications,” says Dr. Sears.

Your physician will run a series of tests to determine the cause of your pancreatitis — alcohol, gallstones or medication. Then you’ll be instructed in what lifestyle modifications you’ll need to make, if any.

If your pancreatitis is due to heavy or binge drinking, you’ll have to give up alcohol. For the rest of your life.

If Pancreatitis Is Untreated

“If your pancreatitis is untreated,” warns Dr. Sears, “it can cause such severe dehydration from your body trying to put out the chemical fire in your gut that you can end up with multi-organ failure. Patients will die from this disease from cardiac, pulmonary, and kidney failure as a result.”

Pancreatitis must be treated within the first 24 hours.

The first 24 hours of treatment are the most important predictors of survival, says Dr. Sears, and are the most important predictors of ultimate outcome without complications and without ultimately needing surgeries.

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Pancreatitis: How drinking too much may affect you