Another Reason not to Drink

By: Sharon Bell

Are you a heavy drinker? Do you love to drown yourself in beer and other hard liquor? If so, prepare to be hit by pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, the large yellow gland behind the stomach which secretes digestive juices and hormones necessary for good health. It is the price adults have to pay for drinking too much.

"Alcohol causes pancreatitis, which leads to impaired production of digestive enzymes and malabsorption of nutrients. Even beer, with five percent alcohol content, will cause gastric irritation if consumed regularly. On the other hand, pancreatitis is more usually found in drinkers of hard liquor," said Dr. Myron Winick, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in "The Columbia Encyclopedia of Nutrition."

Aside from drinkers, those most likely to get pancreatitis are poor eaters, obese individuals, and those taking sulpha drugs, azothioprene, chlorothiazide or cortisone.

There are two types: acute pancreatitis which may occur suddenly, and chronic pancreatitis, which may develop gradually.

Severe acute pancreatitis is characterized by extreme abdominal pain, vomiting, abdominal swelling and gas, fever, muscle aches and low blood pressure. Chronic pancreatitis, on the other hand, is marked by persistent mild or severe pain in the upper abdomen which may last for days or weeks, mild jaundice and rapid weight loss.

"An acute attack is often a result of gallstones, alcoholism, duodenal ulcer or injury. An acute attack is characterized by the onset of severe, steady abdominal. pain, nausea and vomiting, fever, a lowered blood pressure, fast heart rate and clammy skin. This disorder is diagnosed on the basis of symptoms and blood tests. In a large number of cases, the pancreatitis is caused by biliary tract disease; if this is suspected, ultrasonography or CT scans may be performed," explained Dr. Lewis P. Schneider, assistant professor of clinical medicine, in "The Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide."

"Chronic pancreatitis may develop over a period of time without the sudden, dramatic symptoms of an acute attack.Fat digestion is impaired, resulting in fatty stools. There may be recurrent abdominal pain and other symptoms; x-ray studies may find stones or areas of calcified tissue within the organ. If the problem is due to a partially obstructed pancreatic duct, it may be resolved by surgery," Schneider added.

Treatment depends on the cause, but the acute form of the disease is usually curable in five to seven days. In five percent of patients, however, the disease is fatal. Complications include diabetes, chronic calcium deficiency, secondary bacterial infection and massive hemorrhage.

Preventing pancreatitis is simple: "Don't drink more than one or two alcoholic drinks - if any - a day," said Dr. H. Winter Griffith, a fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice.

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