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Death Rattle

Baylor Scott & White Supportive and Palliative Care

What is Death Rattle?​

End-stage wet respirations, known as death rattles occur when secretions build up in the patient's throat and airway. These secretions are normal and consist of saliva, mucous and any other liquids introduced into the patient's mouth via wet sponges to moisten his or her mouth, liquids taken with medications, etc. A healthy person can normally clear his or her throat and swallow or spit out any excess secretions. At the end of life, however, a patient might become to weak to clear his or her throat and swallow these secretions. Altered level of consciousness can impair a patient's ability to clear her or her throat as well. In these cases, secretions build up and cause a loud, rattling sound when air passes through the airway.

How Can Death-Rattle Be Treated?

Things you can do to eliminate or minimize death-rattle for your loved one include:​

  • Try changing the patient's position. Sometimes turning​ a patient from their back to their side will prove effective enough to help clear excess secretions from his or her airway. you can also try elevating his or her head by raising the head of the bed to help promote adequate drainage of these excess secretions.
  • Limit the amount of liquid you introduce into the patient's mouth. While you will want to keep your loved one's lips and mouth moist by using wet sponges, you can minimize the amount​​​​ of water that will drain down his or her throat by gently squeezing the excess water from the sponge before you moisten his or her lips and mouth.
  • Give anticholinergics medication, as ordered by your physician​. Anticholinergics such as atropine or scopolamine help dry up excess secretions which can help clear up the death rattle.
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