Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time. The pancreas is a small organ behind the stomach and below the ribcage. Most people with acute pancreatitis improve within a week. Severe cases can have serious complications and can even be fatal.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis 

The main symptom of acute pancreatitis is a severe, dull pain around the top of your stomach that develops suddenly.

Leaning forward or curling into a ball may help to relieve the pain, but lying flat on your back often increases the pain.

This aching pain often gets steadily worse. It can travel along your back or below your left shoulder blade.

Eating or drinking may also make you feel worse very quickly, especially fatty foods.

Most often acute pancreatitis caused by gallstones or alcohol - causing up to three quarters of all cases.

If caused by gallstones, it usually develops after eating a large meal.

If the condition is caused by alcohol, the pain often develops 6-12 hours after drinking a significant amount of alcohol.

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

Other symptoms 

Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include:

  • nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • indigestion
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • jaundice – yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • tenderness or swelling of the abdomen (tummy)

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

When to seek medical help 

Contact your GP or GP out of hours service immediately if you suddenly develop severe abdominal pain. If you have difficulty getting through, call 999.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis usually involves admission to hospital.

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

Recovery takes longer in severe cases, as complications that require additional treatment may develop.

Who is affected

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

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


About four out of five cases of acute pancreatitis improve quickly and don't cause any serious further problems.

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's a high risk of the condition being fatal.


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published December 2017

This page is due for review June 2018

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