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Pancreatitis, acute - Treating acute pancreatitis

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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There is no specific treatment for acute pancreatitis, but for most people the condition gets better on its own within a week.

During this time, you will be closely monitored for signs of serious problems. Supportive treatment, such as fluids and oxygen, will be used. Many people are well enough to leave hospital after 5-10 days.

In severe cases, complications can develop that require specific additional treatment. In these cases, recovery may take much longer, and the condition can be fatal.

See complications of acute pancreatitis for more information about severe cases.

Fluids

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

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

Nutritional support

Although the diet of many people with mild acute pancreatitis is not 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 that's 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 it is clear 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 are 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 to have a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), or your gallbladder may need to be removed.

Gallbladder removal surgery may be done while you are 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.

An ultrasound scan will be used to guide the endoscope into your digestive system and surgical instruments will be passed down the endoscope so the gallstone can be removed.

Alcohol consumption

Everyone who has had acute pancreatitis should avoid alcohol completely for at least six months, whatever the cause of the condition. This is because alcohol can cause further damage to the pancreas during your recovery.

If you find this difficult to do, you will probably need additional treatment. Treatment options for alcohol dependence include:

Read more about treating alcohol misuse.

Medical Review: March 25, 2013
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