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Pancreatitis: Not Just an Adult's Disease

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Many people think that only adults get pancreatitis, but that’s not true. It is estimated that thousands of children get pancreatitis each year in the United States. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the organ that lies behind the lower part of the stomach. The job of the pancreas is to help you digest food and control your blood sugar. In adults, pancreatitis is commonly caused by gallstones, alcohol or tobacco use.

What causes pancreatitis in children?

The causes of pancreatitis in children tend to be very different than the causes in adults and include:

  1. Physical injuries to the abdomen, such as bicycle handlebar injuries.
  2. Side effects from certain medications, such as anti-seizure medications or some antibiotics.
  3. Problems with the ducts (tubes) in the liver or pancreas.
  4. Infections or other diseases or viruses that affect multiple areas of the body.
  5. For some children, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown.

For children that have had more than one attack of pancreatitis, genetic causes are often found.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

The majority of people who get pancreatitis have severe pain, nausea and vomiting that is not like anything they have experienced before. The pain tends to be constant, increasing and severe. It frequently results in a trip to the emergency room.

There is no one test to diagnose pancreatitis; it depends on the presence of symptoms, abnormal blood tests and images showing inflammation in the pancreas.

Once a diagnosis is made, the underlying cause of the pancreatitis needs to be explored. As one of only a handful of pediatric gastroenterologists in the United States who specialize in the treatment of recurrent and chronic pancreatitis, I can tell you that being seen by a doctor like myself assures that a complete workup is done, looking for the underlying causes of the disease and also assuring that the most up-to-date treatment options are discussed.

What is the treatment?

One misconception of in-hospital treatment of children with pancreatitis is that they should not be fed until their symptoms are better. Actually, early feeding leads to shorter hospital stays and lower risks of pancreatitis-related complications.

There is no single medicine or treatment that will cure pancreatitis. What we can do is help children with this disease feel better by controlling pain and treating the underlying cause of the pancreatitis. Sometimes, procedures are needed to treat pancreatitis or complications from the disease. I have almost 10 years of experience performing these procedures in children.

Ochsner will be setting up a multi-disciplinary approach to the diagnosis and treatment of recurrent and chronic pancreatitis in children. Depending on a child’s needs, this could include gastroenterology, nutrition, Child Life services (developmental, counseling and psychology services for children), pediatric surgery and pain medicine.

How long will my child be sick?

On average, symptoms last about a week, but that doesn’t mean your child will need to be hospitalized the entire time. Most children make a full recovery and will never have pancreatitis again. Unfortunately, some kids have more than one attack of pancreatitis and it is especially important for them to be evaluated by a specialist.

Make an appointment with pediatric gastroenterologist Matthew Giefer, MD

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