Sepsis accounts for 80% of deaths from acute pancreatitis. This study aimed to investigate early changes in intestinal permeability in patients with acute pancreatitis, and to correlate these changes with subsequent disease severity and endotoxemia. The renal excretion of enterally administered polyethylene glycol (PEG) 3350 and PEG 400 was measured within 72 hours of onset of acute pancreatitis to determine intestinal permeability. Severity was assessed on the basis of APACHE II scores and C-reactive protein measurements. Serum endotoxin and antiendotoxin antibodies were measured on admission. Eight-five patients with acute pancreatitis (mild in 56, severe in 29) and 25 healthy control subjects were studied. Urinary excretion of PEG 3350 (median) was significantly greater in patients who had severe attacks (0.61%) compared to those with mild disease (0.09%) and health control subjects (0.12%) (P <0. 0001), as was the permeability index (PEG 3350/400 excretion) (P <0. 00001). The permeability index was significantly greater in patients who subsequently developed multiple organ system failure and/or died compared with other severe cases (0.16 vs. 0.04) (P = 0.0005). The excretion of PEG 3350 correlated strongly with endotoxemia (r = 0.8; P = 0.002). Early increased intestinal permeability may play an important role in the pathophysiology of severe acute pancreatitis. Therapies that aim to restore intestinal barrier function may improve outcome.