What is the Death Rattle?

Common in dying patients, the death rattle is typically a sign that death is near – often within 48 hours. Read to learn more.
What is the Death Rattle?

If you’ve ever sat with a loved one while they passed, you might be familiar with ‘the death rattle’. Medically, this is known as terminal respiratory secretions, and it’s just one sign that death is approaching.

What is the death rattle?

The death rattle refers to the sound of someone breathing through secretions in the back of the throat or the upper airways of the lungs. This rattling or gurgling sound usually signals that the person is reaching the final part of the dying process. At this stage, the body begins to conserve energy and organ functions start to slow or come to a stop.

Is the death rattle painful?

Many people find solace in the fact that the death rattle does not cause the dying person any pain or distress, as they are usually unconscious or experiencing a low level of consciousness during this stage.

Does everyone experience the death rattle?

Studies have shown that the death rattle is heard in roughly 40% of people during the dying phase and 35% of people during the last 24 hours of life. While it appears to be slightly more prevalent among females, people dying of any age and any cause can experience it. 

When the death rattle doesn’t mean death

There are some exceptions where a patient may experience a sound that resembles the death rattle, but this does not necessarily lead to death. This is usually when a medical condition interferes with the breathing, swallowing or coughing functions, and in these instances, it’s typically heard when they are not fully conscious, or while asleep.

Some examples include:

  • A stroke or brain injury that interferes with brain centres or nerve pathways that control breathing or the ability to cough or swallow
  • A chest or abdominal injury that makes it difficult for the person to breathe or cough
  • Lung or heart issues like pneumonia or heart failure which can cause a build-up of fluids in the lungs and around the heart.

What to do if you hear the death rattle

Change your loved one’s position

The death rattle can sound worse when someone is lying on their back. Try rolling them over just a bit, or placing their head higher than their body and turning it to one side to help the fluids drain.

Medications for fluid build-up

If you are in a hospital or hospice, staff can administer medication to dry up the fluids. 

Talk to them and be as present as you can

Comforting a loved one as they pass is extremely difficult, but it’s also a wonderful gift you can give them. Continue to talk to your loved one, even as you hear the sound of the death rattle. It is said that hearing and touch are the last senses to go, so keep talking to them and touching their hand during these last moments together.

Wrap up

As unsettling and unpleasant as the death rattle may sound to family members and those around the dying, it’s important to note that the death rattle does not cause the dying person any pain or discomfort. Ultimately, understanding why the sound happens can help patients’ families feel less distressed when and if it does happen when a loved one passes on.

Now could be a good time to sit down with your loved ones to discuss your very own end-of-life wishes. When you are ready to write your legal Will or plan your funeral, the friendly and experienced team at Willed are available to assist.

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