# 027 Dyspnea at End of Life, 2nd ed


Author(s): David E Weissman MD

Introduction Dyspnea is defined as a subjective sensation of difficulty breathing. This Fast Fact reviews key elements in the assessment and treatment of dyspnea near the end-of-life.

Etiology The causes of dyspnea include a wide spectrum of serious lung or heart conditions, anemia, anxiety, chest wall pathology, electrolyte disturbances or even urinary retention or constipation.

Assessment Looking for simple problems is always warranted: is the Oxygen turned on? Is the tubing kinked? Is there fluid overload from IV fluids or TPN? Is dyspnea part of an acute anxiety episode, severe pain, constipation or urinary retention? Is there a new pneumothorax or worsening pleural effusion? Understanding 1) where patients are at in the dying trajectory, and 2) their identified goals of care, is essential to guide the extent of workup to discover reversible causes. If the patient is clearly dying (see Fast Fact #3), and the goals of care are comfort, then pulse oximetry, arterial blood gases, EKG, or imaging are not indicated.


  • General measures Positioning (sitting up), increasing air movement via a fan or open window, and use of bedside relaxation techniques are all helpful. In the imminently dying patient, discontinuing parenteral fluids is appropriate.
  • Treatment with opioids Opioids are the drugs of choice for dyspnea. In the opioid naïve patient, low doses of oral (10-15 mg) or parenteral morphine (2-5 mg), will provide relief for most patients; higher doses will be needed for patients on chronic opioids. When dyspnea is acute and severe, parenteral is the route of choice: 2-5 mg IV every 5-10 minutes until relief. In the inpatient setting, a continuous opioid infusion, with a PCA dose that patients, nurses or families can administer, will provide the timeliest relief (see Fast Facts #28, 54). Nebulized morphine has been reported to provide benefit in uncontrolled case reports. Controlled trials have not demonstrated any benefit compared to placebo, confirming the low bioavailability of nebulized opioids
  • Treatment with oxygen Oxygen is often, but not universally, helpful. When in doubt, a therapeutic trial, based on symptom relief, not pulse oximetry, is indicated. Patients generally prefer nasal cannula administration than a mask, especially in setting of imminent death when agitation from the mask is commonly seen. There is little reason to go beyond 4-6 L/min of oxygen via nasal cannula in the actively dying patient. Request a face-tent for patients who are claustrophobic from a mask.
  • Treatment with other drugs Anti-tussives can help with cough (see Fast Fact #200), anit-cholinergics (e.g. scopolamine) will help reduce secretions, anxiolytics (e.g. lorazepam) can reduce the anxiety component of dyspnea. Other agents that may have specific disease modifying effects include diuretics, bronchodilators, and corticosteroids.

Family/Team Discussions While there is no evidence that proper symptom management for terminal dyspnea hastens death, the course and management of terminal dyspnea, especially when opioids are used, should be fully discussed with family members, nurses and others participating in care to avoid confusion about symptom relief vs.fears of euthanasia or assisted suicide (see Fast Fact #8).


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  2. Chan KS et al. Palliative Medicine in malignant respiratory diseases. In: Doyle D, Hanks G, Cherney N, and Calman N, eds. Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine. 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2005.
  3. Viola R et al. The management of dyspnea in cancer patients: a systematic review. Supp Care Cancer. 2008; 16:329-337.
  4. Navigante AH, et al. Midazolam as adjunct therapy to morphine in the alleviation of severe dyspnea perception in patients with advanced cancer. J Pain Sympt Manage. 2006; 31:38-47.
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Fast Facts and Concepts are edited by Drew A. Rosielle MD, Palliative Care Center, Medical College of Wisconsin. For more information write to: drosiell@mcw.edu. More information, as well as the complete set of Fast Facts, are available at EPERC: www.eperc.mcw.edu.

Version History: This Fast Fact was originally edited by David E Weissman MD. 2nd Edition published July 2005. Current version re-copy-edited March 2009; new references were added.

Copyright/Referencing Information: Users are free to download and distribute Fast Facts for educational purposes only. Weissman DE. Dyspnea at End-of-Life, 2nd Edition. Fast Facts and Concepts. July 2005; 27. Available at: http://www.eperc.mcw.edu/EPERC/FastFactsIndex/ff_027.htm.

Disclaimer: Fast Facts and Concepts provide educational information. This information is not medical advice. Health care providers should exercise their own independent clinical judgment. Some Fast Facts cite the use of a product in a dosage, for an indication, or in a manner other than that recommended in the product labeling. Accordingly, the official prescribing information should be consulted before any such product is used.

ACGME Competencies: Medical Knowledge, Patient Care

Keyword(s): Non-Pain Symptoms and Syndromes