Most of us have heard this term. It is the noisy rattling sound a dying person makes that can be very disturbing to hear.
Death rattle happens when secretions gather in the throat because the person is too weak to swallow. The gurgling sound happens when air passes through the secretions upon exhale. This doesn't necessarily mean the person is having trouble breathing.
There are things we can do to minimize this. There are standard medications to use that dry these secretions. Re-positioning the person is very effective. Sometimes in re-positioning, secretions will come out of the nose or pool in the mouth. Suctioning them at this point may provide comfort and relief for the family; most of the time just drying in the inside of the mouth with a soft cloth is enough.
It is often distressing for the family to hear this. People fear the person is drowning or will choke to death. This is not so.
It is one of the final things that happens. Know that when you hear this, death is usually imminent, but this phenomenon can also happen days before death. It does not always mean within hours; just know that death is not far off.