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6 Factors That Trigger Pancreatitis (Inflamed Pancreas)

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

Table of Contents

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Pancreatitis or an inflamed pancreas can be due to factors ranging from unhealthy habits to underlying medical problems. While pancreatitis generally induces mild symptoms, it can develop into an acute or chronic stage, leading to life-threatening complications if left untreated. 


  • Gallstone formation accounts for the most common cause of pancreatitis.
  • Chronic alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking are lifestyle factors that can trigger pancreatitis.
  • Other factors contributing to pancreatitis are infections, cystic fibrosis, and certain drugs. 

Pro Tip: If you have pancreatitis symptoms or a high risk for the condition, you can undergo serological testing for diagnosis. These include a lipase blood test and an amylase blood test

Here are six pancreatitis causes that could trigger inflammation in your pancreas. 

  1. Gallstone Formation

The presence of gallstones is considered the most common trigger of pancreatitis. Gallstones are formed in the gallbladder when bile turns into stone-like deposits due to cholesterol, bilirubin, and salt buildup. 

The gallstone can cause bile duct obstruction, which prevents pancreatic enzymes from reaching the small intestine. As a result, these enzymes revert and accumulate in the pancreas, causing inflammation. 

What You Can Do: Maintain a healthy balanced diet to prevent gallstone formation. High-cholesterol and high-sodium diets often cause gallstones, so avoid fatty and processed foods. Plus, see your doctor if you experience symptoms of gallstone formation, like sharp pain in the center or upper right part of your abdomen, back, and shoulders. 

  1. Heavy Alcohol Drinking

Alcohol abuse has always been associated with both chronic and acute pancreatitis. While it remains unclear how alcohol leads to an inflamed pancreas, it is evident that the risk of developing pancreatitis increases with the dosage and frequency of alcohol consumption.

The ethanol content of alcoholic drinks does not directly trigger inflammatory activities in pancreatic cells. However, ethanol and its by-products can increase the susceptibility of the pancreas to other damage-causing factors. 

What You Can Do: Patients with alcohol-induced pancreatitis should stop heavy alcohol drinking immediately to ease up the symptoms. If this can be challenging, consult your doctor for recommendations on dealing with withdrawal consequences. 

  1. Smoking

The link between cigarette smoking and pancreatitis has been expanding since the disease gained attention for being the most common gastrointestinal condition leading to hospitalization. Previously, it was understood that smoking contributes to gallstone formation, which paved its association with pancreatic inflammation. 

In recent years, indirect evidence suggests that cigarette metabolites can trigger pancreatitis. This was traced back to the effect of nicotine and acrolein, substances found in cigarettes, on the pancreas. Nonetheless, further research is needed to strengthen this notion.  

What You Can Do: Giving up smoking is the clear path to take if you have pancreatitis or the risk of developing one. Learn about how you can successfully stop smoking and manage the cigarette withdrawal symptoms that come with it. 

  1. Infections

Certain pathogens or disease-causing microbes directly inflict infectious pancreatitis. These included bacteria, such as salmonella, legionella, and leptospira, as well as the fungi aspergillus and parasites like Ascaris and Toxoplasma gondii. Most of which can be contracted by consuming contaminated food and water. 

On the other hand, viral infection caused by hepatitis viruses, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and herpes simplex virus may also lead to pancreatitis. In these cases, the inflammation is usually a complication rather than a direct effect. 

What You Can Do: You can prevent infections by ensuring proper hygiene, practicing safe sex, safe food preparation, and other surefire ways to ward off pathogens. Additionally, when you observe symptoms of infection, get tested through a complete blood count (CBC) and other tests your doctor orders. 

  1. Cystic Fibrosis

Pancreatitis is a complication of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that leads to the overproduction of mucus, often in sticky texture, in organs that include the lungs and pancreas. As a result, it increases your susceptibility to infection, which only aggravates inflammatory activity. 

What You Can Do: Cystic fibrosis is an inherited condition that could appear during newborn screening. But it’s also likely to miss the disorder and unknowingly have it as an adult. In this case, take note of recurrent pancreatitis and lung infections, then take a sweat test and consult your doctor for a diagnosis. 

  1. Certain Medications

Some drugs are known to induce pancreatic inflammation. The mechanism for this causation varies. It could be due to chemical hypersensitivity, obstruction in the pancreatic duct, toxin buildup, and overall adverse reactions.

Medications that may cause pancreatitis include carbamazepine, erythromycin, phenformin, cyclopenthiazide, acetaminophen, lamivudine, interferon alpha-2b, valproic acid, and pentamidine. 

What You Can Do: When your doctor suspects an inflamed pancreas, make sure to divulge all medications and supplements you’re taking. Also, avoid taking medical drugs without prescriptions. Obtain your doctor’s approval and recommendation if you plan to rake over-the-counter medications. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an inflamed pancreas serious?

An inflamed pancreas or pancreatitis should not be taken for granted. While the condition can quickly improve through treatments and hospitalization, it can also lead to life-threatening complications depending on its cause and severity. Chronic pancreatitis, for instance, damages the pancreas permanently, affecting its ability to regulate hormones and produce exocrine enzymes.

Can stress give you pancreatitis?

The risk of developing pancreatitis increases with chronic stress. Experiencing stress repeatedly stimulates the nerve between the brain and the stomach. This leads to the production of excessive acid, which leads to the oversecretion of pancreatic substances. Furthermore, an imbalance in the stress hormone cortisol may also contribute to pancreatic inflammation. 

What is a major danger of pancreatitis?

A dangerous complication of untreated pancreatitis is necrosis, caused by the pancreatic blood supply being cut off. As a result, you are more susceptible to infections, which can lead to sepsis and organ failure, both of which can be fatal. Moreover, without treatment, pancreatitis can cause permanent damage to pancreatic cells, leading to chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney failure, and pancreatic cancer. 

The Bottom Line

Some triggers of pancreatitis can be avoided by lifestyle adjustment and early diagnosis of the medical condition causing the inflammation. That said, if you have symptoms of pancreatitis, see your doctor to get tested immediately. In addition, consider restructuring your routine by eliminating harmful habits like chronic alcohol drinking and smoking. 


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