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Changes in breathing

The person’s breathing may change.

As a person’s body becomes less active in the final stages of life, they need less oxygen, and their breathing may become shallower. There may be long pauses between their breaths.

Sometimes the person’s breathing may sound noisy or 'rattling'. This is likely to be because they are not able to re-absorb or swallow the normal fluids in their chest or throat, which can cause a rattling sound. In the very last moments of life, the person’s breathing pattern may change. Breaths may become much slower and quieter before they stop altogether.

should you be worried?

A change in the breathing pattern is a normal part of the dying process. If the person is anxious, their breath rate may increase a little. The rattling sound may be upsetting to hear, but it does not seem to cause any distress to the dying person. It can be a bit like snoring – which affects those who hear it more than the person who is making the sound. The person does not usually need extra oxygen at this stage.

is there anything you can do to help?

If the person is anxious, sitting with them so that they know you are there may help to reduce their anxiety.
Breathlessness can be frightening - a small fan and an open window can help.
If the breathing is very rattly, it may be helpful to change the person’s position so that they are on their side if they agree or do not seem too disturbed by being moved.
You can ask to be shown the best way to move the person – ask about sliding sheets. The doctor or nurse may also suggest medication which may help to reduce the fluids in their chest and throat. This is not always needed, and it does not always make a difference.
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