Applied Evidence

Dehydration in terminal illness: Which path forward?

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While our natural tendency is to restore full hydration to patients, how do we proceed when death is imminent and being fully hydrated may prolong discomfort?




A 94-year-old white woman, who had been in excellent health (other than pernicious anemia, treated with monthly cyanocobalamin injections), suddenly developed gastrointestinal distress 2 weeks earlier. A work-up performed by her physician revealed advanced pancreatic cancer.

Over the next 2 weeks, she experienced pain and nausea. A left-sided fistula developed externally at her flank that drained feces and induced considerable discomfort. An indwelling drain was placed, which provided some relief, but the patient’s dyspepsia, pain, and nausea escalated.

One month into her disease course, an oncologist reported on her potential treatment options and prognosis. Her life expectancy was about 3 months without treatment. This could be extended by 1 to 2 months with extensive surgical and chemotherapeutic interventions, but would further diminish her quality of life. The patient declined further treatment.

Her clinical status declined, and her quality of life significantly deteriorated. At 3 months, she felt life had lost meaning and was not worth living. She began asking for a morphine overdose, stating a desire to end her life.

After several discussions with the oncologist, one of the patient’s adult children suggested that her mother stop eating and drinking in order to diminish discomfort and hasten her demise. This plan was adopted, and the patient declined food and drank only enough to swish for oral comfort. At 4 months, she reported less physical discomfort and an improved mood. She died otherwise uneventfully 2 weeks later.


An 83-year-old woman with advanced Parkinson’s disease had become increasingly disabled. Her gait and motor skills were dramatically and progressively compromised. Pharmacotherapy yielded only transient improvement and considerable adverse effects of choreiform hyperkinesia and hallucinations, which were troublesome and embarrassing. Her social, physical, and personal well-being declined to the point that she was placed in a nursing home.

Despite this help, worsening parkinsonism progressively diminished her physical capacity. She became largely bedridden and developed decubitus ulcerations, especially at the coccyx, which produced severe pain and distress.

Continue to: The confluence of pain...


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