Applied Evidence

Dehydration in terminal illness: Which path forward?

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A component of palliative care. When death is imminent, palliation becomes key. Pain may be more manageable with less fluids, an important goal for this population.6,8 Dehydration is associated with an accumulation of opioids throughout body fluid volumes, which may decrease pain, consciousness, and/or agony.2 Pharmacotherapies might also have greater efficacy in a dehydrated patient.9 In addition, tissue shrinkage might mitigate pain from tumors, especially those in confined spaces.8

Allowing individualized autonomy over life and death choices is part of a physician’s obligation to their patients.

Hospice care and palliative medicine confirm that routine hydration is not always advisable; allowing for dehydration is a conventional practice, especially in older adults with terminal illness.7 However, do not deny access to liquids if a patient wants them, and never force unwanted fluids by any route.8 Facilitate oral care in the form of swishing fluids, elective drinking, or providing mouth lubrication for any patients selectively allowed to become dehydrated.3,8

The role of the physician in decision-making

Patients with terminal illness sometimes do not want fluids and may actively decline food and drink.10 This can be emotionally distressing for family members and/or caregivers to witness. Physicians can address this concern by compassionately explaining: “I know you are concerned that your relative is not eating or drinking, but there is no indication that hydration or parenteral feeding will improve function or quality of life.”10 This can generate a discussion between physicians and families by acknowledging concerns, relieving distress, and leading to what is ultimately best for the patient.

Implications for practice: Individualized autonomy

Physicians must identify patients who wish to die by purposely becoming dehydrated and uphold the important physician obligation to hydrate those with a recoverable illness. Allowing for a moderate degree of dehydration might provide greater comfort in select people with terminal illness. Some individuals for whom life has lost meaning may choose dehydration as a means to hasten their departure.4-6 Allowing individualized autonomy over life and death choices is part of a physician’s obligation to their patients. It can be difficult for caregivers, but it is medically indicated to comply with a patient’s desire for comfort when death is imminent.

Providing palliation as a priority over treatment is sometimes challenging, but comfort care takes preference and is always coordinated with the person’s own wishes. Facilitating dehydration removes assisted-suicide issues or requests and thus affords everyone involved more emotional comfort. An advantage of this method is that a decisional patient maintains full control over the direction of their choices and helps preserve dignity during the end of life.

Steven Lippmann, MD, Department of Psychiatry, University of Louisville School of Medicine, 401 East Chestnut Street, Suite 610, Louisville, KY 40202;

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