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End-of-Life Care: Managing Common Symptoms

Ross H Albert
American Family Physician 2017 March 15, 95 (6): 356-361
28318209
Physicians should be proficient at managing symptoms as patients progress through the dying process. When possible, proactive regimens that prevent symptoms should be used, because it is generally easier to prevent than to treat an acute symptom. As swallowing function diminishes, medications are typically administered sublingually, transdermally, or via rectal suppository. Opiates are the medication of choice for the control of pain and dyspnea, which are common symptoms in the dying process. Delirium and agitation may be caused by reversible etiologies, which should be identified and treated when feasible. When medications are required, haloperidol and risperidone are effective options for delirium. Nausea and vomiting should be treated with medications targeting the etiology. Constipation may be caused by low oral intake or opiate use. Preventive regimens to avoid constipation should include a stimulant laxative with a stool softener. Oropharyngeal secretions may lead to noisy breathing, sometimes referred to as a death rattle, which is common at the end of life. Providing anticipatory guidance helps families and caregivers normalize this symptom. Anticholinergic medications can modestly help reduce these secretions. Effective symptom control in end-of-life care can allow patients to progress through the dying process in a safe, dignified, and comfortable manner.

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