Breathing changes as death approaches

As death approaches, you may alternate between periods of rapid breathing and periods of no breathing. It is not unusual to stop breathing for over a minute, then take another breath.

As death approaches, your breathing may become moist and congested. This has been called the “death rattle.” Breathing changes commonly develop when you are weak and normal secretions in your airways and lungs become trapped.

Although the noisy breathing may be alarming to your loved ones, you probably will not have pain or be aware of the congestion. Because the fluid is deep in the lungs, suctioning will not remove it. Your doctor can prescribe oral drops (atropine) or a patch (scopolamine) to decrease the congestion.

Your loved ones or caregivers can turn you on your side to help the secretions drain from your mouth. Also, your caregivers can remove the secretions frequently from your mouth with a moist washcloth or a special mouth swab (available from hospice or purchased at pharmacies).

Your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy to help relieve your shortness of breath. Oxygen therapy may help you become more comfortable but will not prolong your life.

Last Updated: July 14, 2008

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