Infections from enteric bacteria are a major cause of morbidity and mortality during acute pancreatitis (AP), but the pathways by which these organisms reach distant organs remains speculative. Experiments were conducted to determine if bacterial translocation could be a mechanism for infection during this disease. AP was induced in Lewis rats by i.v. infusion of caerulein (experiment I) or ligation of the head of the pancreas (experiment II). In a third experiment, rats were gavaged with 1 x 10(8) 14C-radiolabeled Escherichia coli and pancreatitis was induced with caerulein. Results in all three experiments showed that AP increased the number of viable bacteria recovered in peritoneal fluid, mesenteric lymph nodes (MLN), liver, lungs, and pancreas. Radionuclide counting indicated that AP enhanced the gut permeability to 14C E. coli. To estimate the impact of AP on the magnitude of translocation and on the ability of the host to clear bacteria, the nuclide and colony-forming units (CFU) ratios were calculated between animals with and without AP. Blood, peritoneal fluid, and MLN had the highest nuclide ratio. During AP, these tissues may be the principal routes for bacterial spreading from the gut lumen. Peritoneal fluid, pancreas, and lung were the tissues with the highest CFU ratio. Bacterial killing ability of these tissues is likely impaired during AP.