Treating acute pancreatitis 

Acute pancreatitis is treated in hospital, where you'll be closely monitored for signs of serious problems and given supportive treatment, such as fluids and oxygen.

Many people are well enough to leave hospital after 5-10 days.

In severe cases, complications can develop that require specific additional treatment and you'll need to be admitted to a high dependency unit or intensive care unit (ICU). In these cases, recovery may take much longer, and the condition can be fatal.

Read about the potential complications of acute pancreatitis for more information on severe cases.

Fluids

Your body can become dehydrated during an episode of acute pancreatitis, so fluids are provided through a tube connected to one of your veins (this is known as intravenous, or IV, fluid).

In severe cases of acute pancreatitis, IV fluids can help to prevent a serious problem called hypovolemic shock, which occurs when a drop in your fluid levels lowers the amount of blood in your body.

Nutritional support

Although the diet of many people with mild acute pancreatitis isn't restricted, some people are advised not to eat. This is because trying to digest solid food could place too much strain on your pancreas.

Depending on the severity of the condition, you may not be able to eat solid foods for a few days or longer.

If you need to avoid solid food, a feeding tube may be used to provide your body with nutrients. This is known as enteral feeding and often involves using a tube inserted into your stomach through your nose (nasogastric tube).

Oxygen

To ensure your vital organs have enough oxygen, it will usually be supplied through tubes into your nose. The tubes can be removed after a few days, once your condition is improving.

In severe cases, ventilation equipment may also be used to assist with your breathing.

Painkillers

Acute pancreatitis often causes severe abdominal (tummy) pain, so strong painkilling medication will probably be required, such as morphine. 

Some of the painkillers used can make you feel very drowsy. If you're visiting someone who is in hospital with acute pancreatitis, don't be alarmed or concerned if they appear drowsy or unresponsive.

Treating the underlying cause

Once the condition is under control, the underlying cause may need to be treated. Treatments for the most common causes of acute pancreatitis  gallstones and alcohol consumption  are outlined below.

Gallstones

If a gallstone is responsible for the pancreatitis, you may need a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), or your gallbladder may need to be removed.

Gallbladder removal surgery may be done while you're in hospital, or it may be planned for several weeks' time. Having your gallbladder removed should have no significant effect on your health, other than making it more difficult to digest certain foods, such as fatty or spicy foods.

An ERCP procedure is an alternative treatment for gallstones. It involves using a narrow, flexible tube known as an endoscope, which has a camera on one end.

X-rays guide the endoscope into your digestive system, and surgical instruments are passed down the endoscope to remove the gallstones.

Alcohol consumption

After recovering from acute pancreatitis, alcohol should be completely avoided if this was the cause of the condition. If you find this difficult, you'll probably need additional treatment.

Treatment options for alcohol dependence include:

  • one-to-one counselling
  • self-help groups  such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • a medication called acamprosate – which helps to reduce your alcohol cravings

Read more about treating alcohol misuse.

Page last reviewed: 02/03/2015

Next review due: 02/03/2017