When a child experiences fever, nausea, vomiting and persistent stomach pains, most parents and doctors chalk it up to a 24-hour bug. But there’s another issue that causes remarkably similar symptoms, and it’s often overlooked: pediatric pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, is not commonly considered in children with GI symptoms — primarily because it’s often linked to alcohol or gallstones (which represent about 70% to 80% of adult cases, according to American Family Physician). But while pediatric pancreatitis is more rare than pancreatitis in adults, it’s not as uncommon as you might expect.
What is Pediatric Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a large, pear-shaped gland located behind the stomach. It’s responsible for creating digestive enzymes and releasing them into the small intestine to break down carbs, fats and proteins. It also creates the blood sugar-regulating hormones glucagon and insulin.
When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it may stop functioning properly — which impacts the body’s ability to break down and absorb food and regulate blood sugar levels.
Childhood pancreatitis can either be acute, meaning it lasts only a few days, or chronic, meaning it’s recurring or ongoing and can cause permanent damage to the pancreas.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis often include:
- Sudden, severe abdominal pain
- Pain in the back, sides, and chest
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea or greasy stool
- Weight loss
- Poor growth
- High or low blood sugar
Speak with your or your child’s doctor if you or your child are experiencing any signs or symptoms listed above.
Causes of Pediatric Pancreatitis
There are several causes of pancreatitis in children. They include:
- Genetic disorders
People with certain inherited or genetic disorders, like disease-causing variants in the SPINK1 gene or CFTR gene (which causes cystic fibrosis), are at a higher risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.
According to the NPF, in more than one-third of pediatric pancreatitis cases, the cause is not identified.
- Physical injury
Blunt trauma to the abdomen can injure the pancreas and impact its ability to function normally.
Chemotherapy agents, antibiotics, and anti-seizure medicines can lead to pancreatitis, according to the National Pancreas Foundation (NPF).
Solid materials that form in the gallbladder can often block the pancreatic duct. Although gallstones are very rare in children, they’re still possible.
- The anatomy of the liver or pancreas
Abnormalities in the development or anatomy of the ducts (tubes) in the liver or pancreas can cause pancreatitis.
- A separate illnesses
Illnesses that impact multiple organs, such as autoimmune diseases, can lead to issues with pancreatic function.
- High triglycerides
A high level of triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood) can cause pancreatic inflammation.
Importance of Genetic Testing for Pediatric Pancreatitis
Identifying and diagnosing pancreatitis is challenging — mostly because its symptoms are similar to symptoms of many other conditions. But when pancreatitis is left untreated, it can cause severe damage, and acute cases can become chronic.
Because pancreatic issues may be genetic, undergoing genetic testing can be essential to effective diagnosis and treatment. And because hereditary pancreatitis is progressive, the sooner your doctor diagnoses the issue, the better.
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