The Dreaded “Death Rattle”

Have you ever noticed how a disruptive repetitive sound has the ability to not only distract us but completely alter our mood?  A peaceful ride in the car gets ruined by the vibrating clacking of a forgotten object, or in the attempt to go to sleep, a synchronized tapping branch or chirping cricket seems to drill sound waves into the brain preventing any hope of slumber.

Although usually minor noise, our inability to silence it somehow acts as a megaphone, and everything else is drowned out save that one, grate on your nerves, sound.

It is precisely for this reason that those of us in hospice work aggressively to treat a very common non-harmful symptom that creeps up during the last days of the dying process.  This repetitive, unnatural sound has been labeled by families ‘the death rattle’, though in medical lingo it is known as terminal secretions.

Of all the symptoms we can expect to see as someone transitions from living to dying, this is the symptom feared most by family members.  Often the anxiety is in part due to what families fear the sound represents.  The sound itself is a kind of wet snore, and the moisture that has collected and rolls around as air pushes up through the vocal chords can give a gurgling noise.  People immediately assume that there must be water in someone’s lungs and even worse that they are drowning.

Thankfully this is absolutely not the case.  The sound’s origin comes quiet naturally; as the body begins to transition into dying, we slow and ultimately stop our involuntary swallow mechanism.  Unfortunately, our saliva glands do not shut down.  The saliva has nowhere to go but to the back of our throats, and as we breath, that vibrating air rattles around the moisture to cause the wet sound we hear.  The lungs are usually perfectly clear and although everyone in the room can’t get the sound out of their mind, the patient isn’t even aware.  If the patient were aware, trust me, they’d be coughing and clearing their throat, and communicating irritation.

So if this is natural, not harmful, and the person dying isn’t aware, why are we so aggressive in treating terminal secretions? Simple; this repetitive sound has the ability to distract and forever alter the memory of dying experience for those at the bedside.

There is an art to treating terminal secretions.  One of the big mistakes made by those unfamiliar with end of life issues is to utilize a suction device.  What happens, though, when a foreign object is placed in the mouth, like at the dentist? It stimulates more saliva production. So suction devices actually can make the situation worse, stimulating more and more secretions, leaving the nurses and family stuck suctioning constantly.

The best treatment is to shut off the saliva glands. This is done with medications used frequently in hospice. Timing here is everything; used too early and patients won’t be able to clear thickened secretions, used too late and it’s less effective.

Despite all of the different approaches to treat secretions, there are some who will still die with the rattle.  That is why the combination of good medications, education, and reasonable expectations serves to minimize the negative experience of this natural part of dying.

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