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Changes in breathing towards end of life

As your relative or friend approaches the end of their life they may experience changes in their breathing.

These are some of the changes that might happen:

  • Breathing may become quick and shallow or deep and sighing.
  • Patterns can become irregular.
  • They may appear to be holding their breath – when their breathing resumes it’s often rapid to begin with, before slowing down.
  • Their breath may make a rattling sound.

Noisy breathing may be caused by fluid building up in their throat. Turning your relative or friend in bed may help. Medication may reduce the build-up of mucus at the back of your relative or friend’s throat, too.

As their carer you may find some of the breathing patterns alarming or distressing but they generally don’t cause any discomfort.

If your relative or friend is breathing through their mouth, their mouth and tongue can be kept moist with sips of water or ice cubes. If they can’t swallow, they could suck a moist, clean sponge to keep their mouth from getting too dry.

Breathing patterns may change again as your relative or friend gets weaker. Their breaths could become shallower and less regular, or more laboured.

Sometimes there may be long pauses between breaths. The abdominal (tummy) muscles could also take over the work and you might see the abdomen rise and fall instead of the chest.

Breathing difficulties can get worse if your relative or friend is feeling anxious. Knowing you or another family member or friend is nearby will reassure them.

External websites

Dying Matters   – being with someone when they die


This page is for general information only. It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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