Vitamin C is a key antioxidant in human blood plasma and hence could influence the outcome of conditions such as acute pancreatitis in which oxidative stress apparently plays a pivotal role. The concentrations of vitamin C and its immediately bioavailable form, ascorbic acid, in fasting plasma samples from 30 healthy volunteers were compared with those in admission samples from 29 consecutive patients with acute pancreatitis and 27 patients with other acute abdominal crises. Median (range) levels of vitamin C and ascorbic acid, respectively, were 15 (6.3-19) and 12 (4.5-18) micrograms/ml in the control group, 2.8 (0.3-10) and < 0.5 (< 0.5-6.0) micrograms/ml in patients with acute pancreatitis, and 3.7 (0.6-15) and 2.3 (< 0.5-15) micrograms/ml in those with other acute abdominal problems. Admission plasma samples showed equally low vitamin C levels in both groups of patients (P < 0.001 versus controls), but those from patients with acute pancreatitis were further characterized by a disproportionate reduction in ascorbic acid, such that the concentration of ascorbic acid and its ratio to vitamin C were both significantly lower than in samples from patients with an acute abdomen (P < 0.005 and P < 0.001 respectively). It is concluded that the stress of an acute intra-abdominal crisis is accompanied by a non-specific decrease in the plasma level of vitamin C. In acute pancreatitis early and profound oxidative stress compounds this problem by denaturing the available vitamin. There may be a case for the judicious parenteral administration of ascorbic acid to patients with acute pancreatitis to boost plasma antioxidant defence.