How serious is acute pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is a serious condition; but most people recover well, once the underlying cause is recognized and treated. Mild acute pancreatitis can be treated usually through hospitalization and will fully resolve in a few days.

However, those with severe pancreatitis are more likely to have life-threatening complications such as:

  • Infection of the pancreas.
  • Bleeding in the pseudocyst or damaged pancreas.
  • Heart, lung or kidney failure from spreading infection or if the pancreas leaks toxins into the blood.

Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis may lead to chronic pancreatitis which does not heal, worsens over time and causes permanent damage to the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can be debilitating and lead to death.

Acute pancreatitis may cause pain in the upper abdomen, that may then spread to the back. This pain can:

  • Be severe enough to require strong painkillers
  • Appear suddenly, where the cause is gallstones
  • Appear one to three days following a drinking binge or stopping drinking, where the cause is alcohol
  • Persist for several days
  • Be made worse by coughing, deep breathing and moving vigorously
  • Sometimes be eased by leaning forward

The person may also experience:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Tender abdomen
  • Blue/gray skin discoloration around the sides, also known as the Grey Turner sign or ecchymoses of the flanks
  • Blue/gray skin discoloration around the navel, also known as the Cullen sign or ecchymoses of the flanks


Acute pancreatitis is a serious condition and in severe cases can be life threatening. The severity of the condition can vary depending on the underlying cause and how quickly it is treated. People experiencing possible symptoms of acute pancreatitis should seek immediate medical attention.