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Death Rattle and Anticholinergic Medications

Death rattle – as patients near death, they are unable to cough to clear secretions that begin to pool in the oropharynx and bronchi, resulting in rales (“death rattles”). Because the sound is often distressing to family members, an anticholinergic (glycopyrrolate or atropine) may be given subcutaneously to relieve respiratory distress. A hyoscine hydrobromide transdermal patch is also available, but action is slower, 12 hours compared to 1 minute for injections. Risks associated with anticholinergics include xerostomia (dry mouth), increased sedation, and increased delirium. Elevating the head of the bed or turning the patient to the side may also relieve rattling. Patients normally stop taking fluids as they near death, resulting in dehydration and drying of the mucous membranes of the mouth. The death rattle also begins to lessen.

Palliative care is a form of specialized medical care which aims to optimize the quality of life and alleviate the suffering of patients through early identification and treatment of new symptoms along with management of those that prove refractory.

Excessive secretions can cause the frequently noted ” death rattle” in patients that are actively dying. This is caused by relaxation of the oropharyngeal muscles leading to a pooling of secretion in the throat. While it is typically not distressing for the patient, it does often make family members and other visitors uncomfortable. Anticholinergic agents, especially sublingual atropine drops, can be administered to assist in secretion reduction. Anticholinergic agents have multiple side effects, including decreased/ absent bowel sounds, decreased sweating, hot skin, and mydriatic pupils (dilated pupils).

Hospice & Palliative Care · Nursing Continue Education

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – Reading & Sharing

Definition, Etiology, and Incidence


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig disease after the famous New York Yankees baseball player, is a devastating neurologic disorder that selectively affects motor function with an unknown origin, characterized by progressive muscle atrophy with hyperreflexia that results from denervation, and results in muscle weakness, disability, respiratory insufficiency, and eventually death.

ALS is a rare, debilitating, and incurable neurologic disease, has an annual incidence of 0.5-2 per 100,000 population, is primarily a disorder of middle to late adulthood, affecting people most frequently in their fifties, with men developing the disease nearly twice as often as women. The median survival duration for patient is approximately 3 years, yet approximately 20% of patients survive greater than 5 years, and 10% will survive for greater than 10 years.

As the main area of involvement is the motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord, ALS affects motor neurons in three locations as follows: the anterior horn cells (lower motor neurons – LMNs) of the spinal cord; the motor nuclei of the brain stem, particularly the hypoglossal nuclei; and the upper motor neurons (UMNs) of the cerebral cortex. The death of the LMNs leads to denervation, with subsequent shrinkage of musculature and muscle fiber atrophy. It is this fiber atrophy, called amyotrophy, which appears in the name of the disease. The loss of nerve fibers in lateral columns of the white matter of the spinal cord, along with fibrillary gliosis, imparts a firmness or sclerosis to this CNS tissue. The term lateral sclerosis designates these changes.

A remarkable feature of the disease is that the entire sensory system, the regulatory mechanisms of control and coordination of movement, and the intellect remain intact.

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COPD (Reading & Sharing)

COPD is or chronic obstructive airway disease is actually an umbrella term for a group of diseases that cause airway blockage and breathing problems in general. According to Higginson and Parry (2018), “COPD is a progressive obstructive lung disease that adversely affects the patient’s ability to both breathe and exchange gases between the alveoli and circulation due to loss of lung tissue” (p. 12). Those diseases included are emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma. According to the CDC, almost 15.7 million Americans or 6.4% reported having COPD (CDC, 2018). The rate of COPD was higher in people aged 65 and older, American Indians and Alaskan Natives, current or former smokers, and those with a history of asthma (CDC, 2018).

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