Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content


2-minute read

The pancreas is a thin, 15 cm long organ that lies behind the stomach and under the liver. It is a vital organ with two crucial roles — helping the body to digest food and making hormones that control blood sugar levels.

What does the pancreas do?

Most of the cells in the pancreas make and release digestive enzymes into the duodenum, which is the start of the small intestine. In the duodenum, the digestive enzymes break down partly digested food from the stomach.

A very small part of the pancreas makes hormones that help control blood sugar levels. This part has alpha cells (which make glucagon) and beta cells (which make insulin). Glucagon and insulin work together to keep blood glucose at the right level.

Common pancreas diseases

Common diseases that can affect the pancreas include:

  • pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas, which can be caused by gall bladder disease and alcoholism
  • diabetes — destruction or loss of beta cells can mean the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin for blood sugar control
  • cystic fibrosis — is associated with sticky mucus, and this can prevent digestive enzymes being released into the duodenum
  • pancreatic cancer — cancer of the pancreas

Depending on the pancreatic disease, symptoms can include:

To diagnose pancreatic diseases, your doctor may arrange for stool tests, blood tests, ERCP (endoscopic retrogade cholangiopancreatography, a procedure to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts using a flexible telescope and dye), ultrasound or CT scans.

How can I look after my pancreas?

Diet and lifestyle are important for maintaining a healthy pancreas, for example:

  • drinking little or no alcohol can reduce your risk of pancreatitis and diabetes
  • if you smoke, quitting can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smokers are two to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers

If you are worried that you may have pancreas problems, check your symptoms with healthdirect's Symptom Checker and see your doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Pancreas and insulin: An Overview -

Pancreas and insulin: An Overview - Your pancreas has two functions, read about them in the comprehensive overview below.

Read more on myDr website

Pancreas - Better Health Channel

The pancreas helps to digest food, particularly protein.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Pancreas - Hormones Australia

The pancreas makes and secretes hormones that control blood sugar levels, including insulin, glucagon, vasoactive intestinal peptide and somatostatin. Keeping blood sugar levels steady helps supply the body with energy.

Read more on Hormones Australia website

Pancreatic cancer fact sheet

Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow in an uncontrolled way

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Rare Cancers Australia - Pancreatic Cancer

A disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas. Also called exocrine cancer.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Pancreatitis - Better Health Channel

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can be either acute or chronic

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Type-1 | Diabetes Victoria

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas is unable to make the hormone insulin

Read more on Diabetes Victoria website

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) -

ERCP is an investigation used to view the gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas and pancreatic duct.

Read more on myDr website

Pancreatitis -

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The main symptom is pain in the upper abdomen that feels as if it goes through to your back.

Read more on myDr website

Type 1 diabetes | Diabetes Australia

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body’s own immune system is activated to destroy the beta cells in the pancreas which produce insulin.

Read more on Diabetes Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.