Prevalence, impact, and treatment of death rattle: a systematic review

Martine E Lokker, Lia van Zuylen, Carin C D van der Rijt, Agnes van der Heide

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

71 Citations (Scopus)


CONTEXT: Death rattle, or respiratory tract secretion in the dying patient, is a common and potentially distressing symptom in dying patients. Health care professionals often struggle with this symptom because of the uncertainty about management.

OBJECTIVES: To give an overview of the current evidence on the prevalence of death rattle in dying patients, its impact on patients, relatives, and professional caregivers, and the effectiveness of interventions.

METHODS: We systematically searched the databases PubMed, Embase, CINAHL, PsychINFO, and Web of Science. English-language articles containing original data on the prevalence or impact of death rattle or on the effects of interventions were included.

RESULTS: We identified 39 articles, of which 29 reported on the prevalence of death rattle, eight on its impact, and 11 on the effectiveness of interventions. There is a wide variation in reported prevalence rates (12%-92%; weighted mean, 35%). Death rattle leads to distress in both relatives and professional caregivers, but its impact on patients is unclear. Different medication regimens have been studied, that is, scopolamine, glycopyrronium, hyoscine butylbromide, atropine, and/or octreotide. Only one study used a placebo group. There is no evidence that the use of any antimuscarinic drug is superior to no treatment.

CONCLUSION: Death rattle is a rather common symptom in dying patients, but it is doubtful if patients suffer from this symptom. Current literature does not support the standard use of antimuscarinic drugs in the treatment of death rattle.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-22
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Humans
  • Muscarinic Antagonists/therapeutic use
  • Prevalence
  • Respiratory Mucosa/drug effects
  • Respiratory Sounds/drug effects
  • Terminal Care/methods

Cite this