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End of life care

Changes in the last hours and days

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Physical changes are likely to happen when you're dying. These happen to most people during the terminal (dying) 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 is common in people who are dying. You may also find it difficult to swallow medicine.

Your healthcare professionals can discuss alternative ways of taking medicine with you and your carers, if necessary.

Your family and carers may find it upsetting or worrying if you do not eat, especially if they see you losing weight, but they do not need to make you eat.

As you get closer to dying, your body will not be able to digest food properly and you will not need to eat.

If you cannot swallow to drink, your carers can wet your lips with water.

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.

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 are not there. If you become confused, you may not recognise where you are or the people you're with.

Some people may be restless or seem to be in distress. For example, they may want to move about, even though they are not 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 ease distress.

Your feet and hands may feel cold because of changes in your circulation. 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.

Find more information about the last hours and days of life, including advice for carers and relatives.

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Page last reviewed: 18/10/2021
Next review due: 17/10/2024