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Drug Use and the Pancreas

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Doctor examining pancreas x-rayThe pancreas plays a major role in the body’s digestive system. From blood sugar regulation to digestion, the pancreas is constantly hard at work. However, the pancreas can become inflamed and, over time, accumulate scarring and damage as a result of both acute and chronic pancreatitis. The inflammatory processes associated with repeated bouts of pancreatitis can have a drastic impact on many of the organ’s vital functions.

The Function of the Pancreas

The pancreas is a long, flat glandular organ that is located behind the stomach. It has two major functions:
  • Produce digestive enzymes that break down foods — referred to as the “exocrine” function.
  • Produce hormones that regulate blood sugar levels and help to control the storage of carbohydrate energy in the cells of both the liver and muscles — referred to as the “endocrine” function.


The pancreas is an important organ because it produces enzymes that our bodies need in order to digest food. The mix of enzymes, salts, and acid-neutralizing bicarbonate that the pancreas produces is sometimes referred to as “digestive juices.”

Pancreatic enzymes are activated when they enter the small intestine. These key components of pancreatic digestive juice helps our bodies break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. In addition, pancreatic secretions help neutralize acidic stomach contents, further allowing the enzymes to do their job in breaking down our food.


Another important function of the pancreas is to produce hormones like insulin and glucagon that regulate blood sugar levels. These hormones help to keep sugar levels from getting too high or too low. Insulin is released after you eat or when you have too much glucose in your blood.

When your glucose is too low, your pancreas will release glucagon into your bloodstream. This causes the liver cells to release stored sugar and convert proteins into sugar to give you energy. Once your blood sugar levels rise, the flow of glucagon is stopped.

These two functions — regulating blood sugar and releasing digestive enzymes — are very important jobs. Unfortunately, when cells in the pancreas are not working properly, you can experience digestion problems, pancreatitis, and in some cases, diabetes.

What Happens when the Pancreas is Damaged?

Acute pancreatitis is the rapid inflammation or swelling of the pancreas. It can occur quite suddenly and happens when the digestive juices inside of the pancreas become prematurely activated, leading to a process known as “auto-digestion” of the organ itself. This can lead to swelling, bleeding, and damage to the blood vessels inside the pancreas.

Chronic pancreatitis happens when the pancreas becomes damaged and scarred over time. Swelling and inflammation cause changes in the pancreas’ ability to function as it should — injuring the specialized cells that produce enzymes and hormones and potentially obstructing the delicate system of vessels and ducts that otherwise efficiently transport these key endocrine and exocrine molecules. When people have chronic pancreatitis they will need to go to the doctor more regularly in order to address their symptoms and slow the damage to their pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis is a serious condition that can lead to disability and in some cases, death.

Pancreatitis is quite common in the United States — in 2009, acute pancreatitis accounted for approximately 275,000 hospitalizations (Peery et al., 2009). In fact, it is the most frequent gastrointestinal cause of hospital admissions in the country (Yadav & Lowenfels, 2013).

Do Drugs Hurt the Pancreas?

Certain drugs can damage the pancreas. The most notable drug is alcohol; however, other drugs may cause harm, as well.


One of the most common causes of acute pancreatitis is alcohol abuse. Alcohol can cause serious and potentially long-term harm to your pancreas. It is common for people who drink often and/or heavily to experience episodes of acute pancreatitis.

Repeated episodes of pancreatitis can damage the organ permanently and cause chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis is most often caused by years of alcohol abuse. Alcohol-related pancreatitis is more common among men than women.

Other drugs

Although acute pancreatitis is caused by a variety of things, including infection, ethanol abuse, and genetics, pancreatitis caused by medication is less common.  In fact, it only accounts for roughly 2% of all cases of pancreatitis cases (Trivedi & Pitchumoni, 2005).

Aspirin abuse
Abuse of prescription medications, however, may more commonly lead to pancreatitis. Drugs believed to contribute to this condition include:
  • Aspirin*.
  • Acetaminophen*.
  • Propoxyphene.
  • Codeine.

*These analgesic substances are found in pharmaceutical formulations in combination with a number of frequently abused prescription drugs — including opioid painkillers such as Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, and Percodan — and may harm the pancreas when taken in excess.

While prescription drugs rarely cause pancreatitis, it is even more rare for marijuana to cause pancreatitis (Grant & Gandhi, 2004). There have been very few reported cases of marijuana-induced pancreatitis. One study reported on three cases of pancreatitis that were likely caused by marijuana. However, it is important to note that the cases reported to involve marijuana are anecdotal (Howaizi, Chahine, Haydar, Jemaa, & Lapoile, 2012).

People who abuse methamphetamine may be at an increased risk for having health issues related to their pancreas. It has been noted that methamphetamine can cause unwanted, spontaneous bleeding in a person’s pancreas (American College of Toxicology).

Drug-Induced Pancreatitis

Drug-induced pancreatitis can be extremely painful and needs to be addressed quickly. It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms so that you can take action if you notice there’s a problem.

Pancreatitis Symptoms

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis usually begin with pain in the center part of the upper abdomen with a characteristic radiation of pain towards the upper back.

Man with abdominal pain

Other symptoms of pancreatitis may include:

  • Intense epigastric abdominal pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Loose, greasy, or oily stools.
  • Weight loss.

The symptoms of pancreatitis are frequently worsened with continued eating and/or drinking. If you see your doctor to address these symptoms, they may order imaging tests or abdominal X-rays to get a better idea of what type of pancreatitis you have.

Treatment for pancreatitis can last for a few days. You may be placed on a regimen of restricted oral intake (e.g., no food or water by mouth), be given intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and different types of medicines to treat your symptoms. Additionally, doctors may prescribe opioids, such as morphine, to relieve pain.

Effects of Pancreatitis

The effects of pancreatitis can be severe. People suffering from this condition may have trouble digesting fatty foods because their pancreas is not functioning properly. This can result in diarrhea, nutritional deficiencies, and rapid weight loss. However, this doesn’t usually happen until the pancreas loses up to 90% of its functioning (Singh & Toskes, 2003; Warshaw, Banks & Fernàndez–del Castillo, 1998).

Because your pancreas is responsible for producing digestive juices and hormones, pancreatitis can throw off the production of insulin. In more severe cases, the pancreas can stop producing enough of this hormone to regulate blood sugar; this has the potential to cause diabetes.

Although rare, pancreatitis can be fatal. If you develop symptoms of pancreatitis or if you have pancreatitis and your symptoms are getting worse, call your doctor.

Mechanisms in Medicine, Inc.

Preventing Pancreatitis

If you have experienced acute or chronic pancreatitis, there are ways to help prevent it from happening again. Simple changes to lifestyle and diet may be able to help relieve pain during the early stages of the condition. After years of living with chronic pancreatitis, your doctor may suggest more comprehensive measures that you can take to relieve your pain.

Some preventative steps may include:

  • Stopping or decreasing the use of alcohol – Avoiding alcohol is the most important preventative measure you can take if your pancreatitis is related to alcohol abuse. This can help reduce your risk of having another episode of pancreatitis. Because alcohol is often involved in cases of acute pancreatitis, the sooner you can stop drinking the better. For help, call .
  • Eating foods that are low in fat – To help reduce your risk, you can try eating foods that are low in fat and drink plenty of water. Incorporating whole foods such as fruits, grains, and vegetables is a good idea. Try to avoid eating fried foods.
  • Exercise regularly – Engaging in regular physical activity can help move blood around in your body and prevent acute pancreatitis.
  • Don’t smoke (or smoke less) – Studies show that smoking increases your risks for acute pancreatitis. By stopping today, you are investing in your long-term health.

Drugs and Pancreatic Cancer

Like many other cancers, there are multiple substance-related risk factors for pancreatic cancer, including smoking, alcohol use, and hepatitis. Read below to learn more about the risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer.


A major risk for pancreatic cancer is smoking. Smokers are two to three times more like to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers (American Cancer Society). The number of cigarettes smoked per day and how long you have been a smoker both contribute to your risk.

There is evidence that quitting smoking can decrease your risk of pancreatic cancer. In fact, studies have found that the pancreatic cancer risk in those who quit smoking 20 years ago was similar to that of those who had never smoked (Bosetti et al., 2012).


People who are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV) may be at higher risk for pancreatic cancer.  In fact, studies show that pancreatic cancer risk is 20-60% higher among people with HBV compared to people who are HBV negative (Wang et al., 2013; Luo et al., 2013; Xu et al., 2013; Majumder, Bockorny, Baker, & Dasanu, 2014).

It remains inconclusive about whether the risk of pancreatic cancer is higher among individuals infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Injecting drugs increases the risk of contracting hepatitis viruses.

Considering these risk factors, it is absolutely essential to always take caution when injecting drugs into the body. You can seek out certain harm reduction programs like sterile needle exchanges if you are an injection user. Of course, the best way to lower your risk is to end all drug use. If you need help, call us today at and we can discuss options for treatment on a confidential basis.


According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), alcohol may increase the risk for pancreatic cancer. Although some studies have shown a link between alcohol use and pancreatic cancer, the link is not certain due to limited evidence.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Help

If you are struggling with alcohol or drug use and experiencing symptoms or episodes of pancreatitis, don’t wait until it’s too late. Give us a call today at to learn more about how you can get involved in treatment. You can live a sober life without drugs or alcohol and we can help you find a treatment facility that fits your unique needs.

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Lauren worked as a Web Content Writer at Recovery Brands. Before working at Recovery Brand, she served as the Program Director for a community-based HIV/AIDS and cancer non-profit in San Francisco.

Lauren holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.

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