The use of anticholinergic agents to treat excessive oropharyngeal and tracheal secretions in palliative care
Symptoms commonly associated with terminal phase of disease include pain, nausea, agitation, respiratory symptoms and general fatigue. During the last few days of life, patients may become weak, resulting in difficulty taking oral medication and have periods of unconsciousness. Some patients may require drug administration via subcutaneous infusion. A proportion of patients may develop difficulty clearing respiratory secretions causing a characteristic ‘death rattle’, which although not generally considered to be distressing for the patient, is often treated with a variety of anticholinergic drugs in an attempt to reduce the ‘noisy breathing’ for the benefit of relatives and others who may be closely associated with the patient. This study examined treatment of death rattle in two Hospices focusing on objective and subjective outcome measures in order to determine the efficacy of anticholinergic regimens in current use. Qualitative methods were employed to elicit attitudes of professionals and carers working closely with the patient. The number of patients recruited and monitored were small, many confounding factors were identified which questioned firstly the clinical rationale for administering anticholinergic drugs routinely to treat death rattle and secondly, the ethics of administering drug regimens to patients to treat death rattle with the primary aim of relieving distress for others. Ethnical issues, including those of consent are discussed in relation to their impact on the methodology of end of life studies in medicines management in palliative care.