Introduction 

Acute pancreatitis is a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time.

Most people with acute pancreatitis improve within a week and experience no further problems, but severe cases can have serious complications and can even be fatal.

Acute pancreatitis is different to chronic pancreatitis, where the inflammation of the pancreas persists for many years.

The most common symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • suddenly getting severe pain in the centre of your abdomen (tummy)
  • feeling sick
  • vomiting

Read more about the symptoms of acute pancreatitis and diagnosing acute pancreatitis.

When to seek medical help

You should contact your GP immediately if you suddenly develop severe abdominal pain. If this is not possible, contact NHS 111 or your local out-of-hours service for advice.

Why it happens

It's thought acute pancreatitis occurs when a problem develops with some of the enzymes (chemicals) in the pancreas, which causes them to try to digest the organ.

Acute pancreatitis is most often linked to:

  • gallstones, which accounts for around half of all cases
  • alcohol consumption, which accounts for about a quarter of all cases

By reducing your alcohol intake and altering your diet to make gallstones less likely, you can help reduce your chances of developing acute pancreatitis.

Read more about the causes of acute pancreatitis and preventing acute pancreatitis.

Who is affected?

Acute pancreatitis is more common in middle-aged and elderly people, but it can affect people of any age.

Men are more likely to develop alcohol-related pancreatitis, while women are more likely to develop it as a result of gallstones.

In England, more than 20,000 people were admitted to hospital with acute pancreatitis between 2011 and 2012. 

How it is treated

There is currently no cure for acute pancreatitis, so treatment focuses on supporting the functions of the body until the inflammation has passed.

This usually involves admission to hospital so you can be given fluids into a vein (intravenous fluids), pain relief, nutritional support and oxygen through tubes into your nose.

Most people with acute pancreatitis improve within a week and are well enough to leave hospital after 5-10 days.

However, recovery will take longer in severe cases, as complications that require additional treatment may develop.

Read more about treating acute pancreatitis

Complications

About four out of five cases of acute pancreatitis improve quickly and don't cause any serious further problems. However, one in five cases are severe and can result in life-threatening complications, such as multiple organ failure.

In severe cases where complications develop, there is a high risk of the condition being fatal. In England, just over 1,000 people die from acute pancreatitis every year.

If a person survives the effects of severe acute pancreatitis, it is likely to be several weeks or months before they are well enough to leave hospital.

Read more about the possible complications of acute pancreatitis.

Anatomy of the abdomen 

The pancreas

The pancreas is a small organ located behind the stomach and below the ribcage. It has two important functions:

  • it produces digestive chemicals (enzymes) that are used by the intestines to help digest food
  • it produces powerful hormones, the most important being insulin, which regulates the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood

Page last reviewed: 25/03/2013

Next review due: 25/03/2015