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Is My Child’s Tummy Pain Pancreatitis or Something Else?

It’s 2 a.m., and your little one is up. No, not for a nightmare or extra snuggles. Instead, they’re crying, doubled over with stomach pain, nausea and a fever.

Usually, these symptoms may add up to nothing more than a 24-hour stomach bug. But sometimes, there may be a different cause. There’s another issue that can cause very similar symptoms, but it’s often overlooked: pediatric pancreatitis.

Although you may have thought pancreatitis was a problem only adults faced, children can also be affected.

“Pancreatitis affects about 10 in 100,000 children each year,” said Jonathan Wong, DO, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Banner Health. “While most cases of pediatric pancreatitis won’t cause permanent damage, it’s important to recognize the signs and get appropriate care.”

Read on to learn more about pediatric (childhood) pancreatitis and what signs and symptoms you should pick up on.

What is pediatric pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a relatively large gland that sits behind your stomach in the upper part of your abdomen. It has two main functions: to secrete digestive enzymes to help your intestines digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates in food and to help regulate your blood sugar levels.

Normally, these enzymes don’t start digesting food until they reach the small intestine. However, if these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they can cause redness and swelling (inflammation) that can lead to pancreatitis.

When it comes to pancreatitis, there are two types: acute and chronic (recurrent).

“Pancreatitis in children can either be acute, meaning it lasts a short period of time, or chronic, meaning it’s recurring or ongoing and when left untreated can cause permanent damage to the pancreas,” Dr. Wong said. “Acute pancreatitis is much more common, and of those children who develop it, many will have only one episode.”

What are the causes of pancreatitis in children?

While the exact causes for pancreatitis aren’t always known, acute pancreatitis may develop in response to a viral infection, certain medications or an injury to the abdomen.

Although chronic pancreatitis is rare in children, certain inherited disorders such as hereditary pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis can lead to childhood pancreatitis.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis in children?

Pancreatitis can be extremely painful for children, but the symptoms alone may not indicate your child has it, and can be similar to other conditions, like appendicitis.

You’ll want to look for “alarm type symptoms,” Dr. Wong said. “Symptoms like extreme stomach pain that comes on suddenly, vomiting and nausea, fever, dehydration or loss of appetite are all signs it’s time to call your child’s health care provider,” he said. “An example I give, is if I barely touch or graze a patient’s abdomen and they jump off the table in pain, this should be evaluated further.”

How is pancreatitis in children diagnosed and treated?

If your health care provider suspects your child has pancreatitis, they may use a number of screenings and tests to evaluate its function.

If your child is ultimately diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, your child’s health care provider may recommend taking certain medications to treat your child’s pain and ensuring proper hydration and nutrition.

“In the past, the usual treatments included having patients refrain from eating or drinking with the idea this would allow the pancreas to rest,” Dr. Wong said. “However, recent studies have shown that patients who continue to consume a regular diet do better. In general, when it comes to an ill child, the importance of nutrition cannot be understated.”

In most cases, your child’s pancreatitis will resolve on its own with supportive care and no further treatment or evaluation will be needed.

“I often see patients after the fact when they’ve recovered,” Dr. Wong said. “It’s important to evaluate for any underlying factors such as medications, gallstones or high triglyceride levels. If there is not an obvious cause, we typically do not perform more testing unless the child has a second episode.”

In the unlikely case that your child develops chronic pancreatitis, additional tests or surgery may be needed.

Takeaway

While your child’s late night wakeup call may just be due to a stomach bug, it’s important to keep in mind “alarm-type symptoms” to watch out for. If you have concerns about your child’s stomach pain and symptoms, contact your health care provider.

To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

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