When it comes to end-of-life care, there are many symptoms that are misunderstood. One symptom that is well known, but not well understood, is terminal respiratory secretions. Commonly referred to as a death rattle, this symptom involves noisy breathing and tends to raise several questions from family members.

The cause of terminal respiratory secretions, or death rattle, is a build up of mucus and saliva in the patient’s throat. In many cases, terminally ill patients will eventually lose the ability to swallow and clear their throat. As they begin to lose consciousness, this build up will stay lodged in their throat, moving in time with the patient’s breathing. This movement causes a crackling and rattling sound.

How to Care for a Patient with a Death Rattle

Terminal respiratory secretions aren’t always an indication of respiratory distress, but the sound can often raise concerns from the family of the patient. There are a few medications, such as Hyoscyamine (Levsin) and Atropine, that can be administered to decrease the patient’s saliva production. Another way to treat terminal respiratory secretions is to reposition the patient on their side and raise their head to help the patient be more comfortable.

Although death rattles aren’t a pleasant sound for families to hear, it is a natural part of end-of-life care. When a patient begins to experience this symptom, it’s normally an indication the patient is nearing the end. This can be a cue for family members to come say their final goodbyes, and for our bereavement consolers to come meet with the family to help guide them through this time.

If you’re in need of hospice care in Tulsa or the surrounding areas, call Cura Hospice and Palliative Care. Our team of hospice professionals is here to help your loved one deal with symptoms like terminal respiratory secretions and other common end-of-life symptoms.