What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that sits near the stomach. Pancreatitis can be acute (come on quite suddenly) or chronic (ongoing). This article deals with acute pancreatitis.

The main causes of pancreatitis are gallstones and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, although in some cases a cause can’t be found. If the pancreatitis is mild, it can be treated with pain relief and by allowing the pancreas to rest by not eating for a while. If the pancreatitis is more severe, other organs may be affected and intensive therapy is needed.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas is a small organ near the stomach. It helps break down and digest food. The pancreas also produces a number of hormones such as insulin, which helps control blood sugar levels.

What happens in intensive care?

When someone gets acute pancreatitis and goes to hospital, they may be cared for in a general ward. However, if they have a more severe case of pancreatitis, they will need to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). Here, they may:

  • be given intravenous fluids
  • be fed either intravenously or using a nasogastric tube
  • be given pain relief using a patient controlled analgesic device (known as a PCA) or a continuous infusion of morphine or other type of pain relief
  • have a bedside monitor to continuously monitor their heart rate, oxygen levels and blood sugar level
  • have a central venous catheter, an arterial line and an indwelling urinary catheter inserted
  • be given respiratory support if they have difficulty breathing, using either a mask, or an endotracheal tube (breathing tube) and ventilator (breathing machine). See Breathing support.

See Equipment for more detail on the machines mentioned.

If the acute pancreatitis is severe, the person may spend weeks to months in the ICU, or have repeated admissions.

Some people have more than one operation to remove dead pancreatic tissue or to drain abscesses. In a small number of cases, complications can develop, including shock, kidney failure or respiratory failure. In such cases, recovery becomes difficult and there is a risk that the person may not survive.

Useful links

Publication details

Version 1.2. First published April 2016. Next review 2023.


The information on this page is general in nature and cannot reflect individual patient variation. It reflects Australian intensive care practice, which may differ from that in other countries. It is intended as a supplement to the more specific information provided by the doctors and nurses caring for your loved one. ICNSW attests to the accuracy of the information contained here but takes no responsibility for how it may apply to an individual patient. Please refer to the full disclaimer.