By: Kimera A. Joseph, MD, FAAP & Patrick T. Reeves, MD, FAAP
The pancreas has several important jobs in the body. It helps control blood sugar levels, break down food, and empty the stomach during digestion. This vital organ can become inflamed, a condition called pancreatitis. About
15 to 35% of children have more than one case of pancreatitis but remain in normal health between episodes.
Are there different types of pancreatitis?
There are three different types of pancreatitis that can affect children:
Acute pancreatitis can be sudden, and inflammation is typically reversible. It is a one-time occurrence and lasts a few days. This is the most common type of pancreatitis found in children.
Acute recurrent pancreatitis happens several times during your child's lifetime. It occurs when your child recovers from the initial episode of pancreatitis and has one or more additional episodes.
Chronic pancreatitis is constant inflammation of the pancreas that can last months or even years.
What are the signs & symptoms of pancreatitis in children?
Symptoms of acute and acute recurrent pancreatitis may include:
Upper abdominal pain
Irritability in young children and toddlers
Vomiting and nausea
Back pain, fever and yellowing of the eyes/skin (jaundice), although these symptoms are rare
Common symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
What causes pancreatitis in children?
The most common causes of acute pancreatitis in children include:
Trauma/injury to the abdomen
Systemic illnesses (illnesses affecting other areas of the body)
Gallstones or other blockages in the system
Infection (viruses are the most common)
Elevated triglycerides (a type of fat found in blood) and other metabolic issues
Idiopathic (unclear) causes, the leading cause of pancreatitis in children
Common causes of chronic pancreatitis:
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Blood tests look for infection and inflammation. They also check the function of the pancreas and nearby organs.
Imaging through ultrasounds and CT scans can look for evidence of pancreatitis. A specific MRI called magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) can also be used but requires anesthesia in young children.
Stool tests, sweat tests and
genetic testing can be used for children with chronic pancreatitis.
How is pancreatitis treated in children?
Treatment of acute pancreatitis can depend on the cause and severity of your child's illness. Some mild pancreatitis cases may be treated at home using
Severe cases of pancreatitis may require being admitted to the hospital, where your child could be prescribed stronger medicine to manage pain. Your child may also receive fluids through an IV if they have been vomiting.
If your child's pancreatitis is being caused by a gallstone or blockage, then surgery may be required. A procedure called Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is used to remove stones or fix blockages.
Will my child have any long-term problems after pancreatitis?
Most cases of acute pancreatitis get better in about a week. In rare cases, fluid may collect around the pancreas from inflammation. This condition will eventually go away, but it may need antibiotics or surgery to manage symptoms.
With chronic pancreatitis, there can be permanent damage to special cells in the pancreas. Your child may need to stay on a specific diet and take medications to help with digestion. Their treatment plan will be determined by their doctor.
Talk with your child's doctor if you have any questions or if your child has symptoms of pancreatitis.
About Dr. Joseph
Kimera A. Joseph, MD, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and current pediatric gastroenterology fellow at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: The Children’s Center. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is a member of the Section on Gastroenteroly, Hepatology and Nutrition.
About Dr. Reeves
Patrick T. Reeves, MD, FAAP, is a consultant Pediatric Gastroenterologist at Brooke Army Medical Center and a father of two. Dr. Reeves has published more than 20 PubMed cited articles, received three grant awards, developed two point-of-care medical applications, and created numerous clinical tools with the intent to improve patient care. He has a research focus is the development of medical education curricula and clinical point-of-care instruments to facilitate the care of children.