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What is a Death Rattle?

Terminal respiratory secretions, commonly known as a “death rattle,” occur when mucous and saliva build up in the patient’s throat. As the patient becomes weaker and/or loses consciousness, they can lose the ability to clear their throat or swallow. This results in a wet, rattling sound as the patient breathes in and out through the secretions.

When does the death rattle usually occur?

Terminal respiratory secretions are a sign that the patient is transitioning to the final stage of the dying process. At this point, their body naturally begins to conserve energy and many organ functions slow or cease.

How long after a death rattle does death occur?

Terminal respiratory secretions occur as the body’s breathing slows. This typically lasts no more than a few hours, but each patient is different and it can continue for as long as 24-48 hours. While the sound is difficult for family members to hear, it does not cause the patient pain or distress.

Tips for caring for a patient with a death rattle.

Now that you understand more about “what is a death rattle,” consider how to care for a patient experiencing a death rattle. When facing this situation with a patient, family members or caregivers can hold their hand, talk to them, and continue to offer comfort. They can also wipe away any secretions around the patient’s mouth. The patient can be repositioned on their side with their head elevated to aid in performing mouth care. If necessary, medication including Atropine or Hyoscyamin(Levsin) may be administered to decrease the production of saliva.

What are some of the other signs that death is imminent?

Terminal respiratory secretions are just one sign that death is approachingThe patient’s extremities may become increasingly cool to the touch, and the skin may display a mottled appearance. The patient may also want little to no fluid or food during this time.

We know what a difficult time this can be. To better understand the changes your loved one or patient is experiencing, complete the form on this page to download a complimentary guide to end-of-life signs and symptoms.