Here we’ll explain the symptoms of pancreatitis, how alcohol causes the condition and the other health problems it can lead to.
You probably don’t pay much attention to your pancreas. But that small, tadpole-shaped organ behind your stomach and below your ribcage is pretty important.
It produces two essential substances: digestive juices which your intestines use to break down food, and hormones that are involved in digestion, such as insulin, which regulates your blood sugar levels.
Pancreatitis is when your pancreas becomes inflamed and its cells are damaged. Heavy drinking can cause pancreatitis. But if you drink within the UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines', you should avoid upsetting this important organ.
Most cases of acute pancreatitis come on pretty quickly. The pancreas becomes inflamed but it only stays that way for a few days and there isn’t usually any permanent damage. However, one in five cases of acute pancreatitis are severe. Enzymes from your pancreas can get in your blood stream and lead to more serious conditions, like kidney failure.
In England, more than 25,000 people were admitted to hospital with acute pancreatitis between 2013 and 20141.
- abdominal pain, just behind the ribs and spreading through the back
Chronic pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed and stays that way, causing it to stop working properly. Between 2012 and 2013, over 35,000 people visited hospitals in England with chronic pancreatitis2.
- recurring, severe pain behind the ribs and through the back
- weight loss
- producing greasy, foul-smelling faeces
- back pain
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Both types of pancreatitis can be caused by heavy drinking.
Acute: Scientists aren’t sure exactly how alcohol causes the condition. One theory is that the molecules in alcohol interfere with the cells of the pancreas, stopping them working properly. Whatever the cause, there is a clear link between drinking alcohol and acute pancreatitis – and the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing the condition3.
Chronic: You’re more likely to have repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis when you drink heavily. Over time, this will cause permanent damage to your pancreas, causing chronic pancreatitis. Around seven out of 10 cases of chronic pancreatitis are due to long-term heavy drinking4.And it’s worse if you smoke. Cigarettes are thought to increase the harmful effects of alcohol on the pancreas.
Gallstones (small stones, usually made of cholesterol that form in the gallbladder) are another major cause of both types of pancreatitis.
Damage from chronic pancreatitis can be irreversible
If you’re diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, you should stop drinking and eat a low fat diet. This will reduce your risk of another attack and developing chronic pancreatitis.
If you develop chronic pancreatitis your pancreas will stop working properly. The outlook for most cases of chronic pancreatitis is not good. The damage is irreversible and you’ll need to go on permanent medication to help you digest food and to maintain blood sugar levels. It’s a painful condition, but in many cases, after years of treatment the pain improves or sometimes disappears.
Around a third of people with chronic pancreatitis have diabetes6. This is because the damaged pancreas cannot make insulin (which you need to regulate your blood sugar). It usually happens years after the pancreatitis diagnosis. In fact, it’s not unusual for 20 years to go by before diabetes occurs.
Pseudocysts are another common complication of chronic pancreatitis. These are sacs of fluid that develop on the surface of the pancreas. In many cases, they don’t cause any symptoms and will only be found if you have a computerised tomography (CT) scan. However, in some people, pseudocysts can cause bloating, indigestion and abdominal pain. They affect around one in four people with chronic pancreatitis.
Chronic pancreatitis also increases your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Like any health condition that causes you to be in a lot of pain, chronic pancreatitis can affect you emotionally and harm your mental health.
How does alcohol relate to diabetes?
If you’re diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, the most important thing you can do is to stop drinking alcohol. This should help with the pain, and stop your pancreas being damaged even more. If you carry on drinking, you’re likely to experience huge amounts of pain. Worse still, you’re three times more likely to die from complications of the condition.
With acute pancreatitis, even if it’s not been caused by alcohol, you should avoid drinking completely for at least six months. You need to give your pancreas time to recover.
If you find it hard to stop drinking, you may have become dependent on alcohol. There’s support to help you give up; start by talking to your GP.Take our Alcohol Self Assessment test to see if your drinking is harming your health
Two-thirds of cases of chronic pancreatitis occur in people who have a history of heavy drinking7.
Chronic pancreatitis that is related to drinking alcohol is most common in men between 45 and 548.
In England, more than 25,000 people were admitted to hospital with acute pancreatitis between 2013 and 2014. And around 1,000 people die from it, in this country, every year9.
Drinking within the Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines' will help keep your drinking in control. Here are three ways you can cut back:
- Keep track of what you’re drinking. The MyDrinkaware online drinks tracker helps track your drinking and gives personalised tips for cutting back
- Know your strength. Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation ‘ABV’ which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word ‘vol’. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.
- Try Drink Free Days. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. Many medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm).
Visit the National Pancreas Foundation website for information and support, including discussion forums.
Last reviewed: 29 March 2016
Next review due: 29 March 2019
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