End of life careChanges in the last hours and days
Physical changes are likely to occur when you're dying. These happen to most people during the terminal phase, whatever condition or illness they have. This can last hours or days.
You'll start to feel more tired and drowsy, and have less energy. You'll probably spend more time sleeping, and as time goes on you'll slip in and out of consciousness.
Not wanting to eat or drink
Not wanting to eat is common in patients who are dying. At this stage, you may also find it difficult to swallow medicine.
Your healthcare professionals can discuss alternative ways of taking medication with you and your carers, if necessary.
Your family and carers may find it upsetting or worrying if you don't eat, especially if they see you losing weight, but they don't need to make you eat.
As you get closer to dying, your body won't be able to digest food properly and you won't need to eat.
If you can't swallow to drink, your carers can wet your lips with water.
Changes in breathing
Your breathing may become less regular. You may develop Cheyne-Stokes breathing, when periods of shallow breathing alternate with periods of deeper, rapid breathing.
The deep, rapid breathing may be followed by a pause before breathing begins again.
Your breathing may also become more noisy as a result of the build-up of mucus.
The body naturally produces mucus in your breathing system, including the lungs and nasal passages. When you're healthy, this mucus is removed through coughing.
When you're dying and no longer moving around, the mucus can build up and cause a rattling sound when you breathe.
Confusion and hallucinations
Medicines or changes in the chemical balance of your brain can cause confusion or hallucinations.
A hallucination is when you see or hear things that aren't there. If you become confused, you may not recognise where you are or the people you're with.
Some people may experience restlessness or seem to be in distress. For example, they may want to move about, even though they aren't able to get out of bed, or they may shout or lash out.
This can be out of character and distressing for family and carers.
The medical team can rule out or treat any underlying causes, such as pain, breathing problems or infection, or calm the person who is dying.
If no underlying cause can be identified, there are medicines that can be used.
Cold hands and feet
Your feet and hands may feel cold as a result of changes in your circulation. Extra blankets over your hands and feet can keep you warm.
Your skin may look slightly blue because of a lack of oxygen in your blood. This is known as cyanosis.
For further help, read What to expect when someone important to you is dying, a guide for carers, families and friends of people who are dying.
- Age UK: let's talk about dying
- Alzheimer's Society: the later stages of dementia
- Cancer Research UK: what happens in the final days of life
- Cruse Bereavement Care: about bereavement
- Dying Matters: being with someone when they die
- Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care: end of life care guide
- Marie Curie: end of life experiences
- National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE): care of adults in the last two to three days of life
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Page last reviewed: 20/06/2018
Next review due: 20/06/2021