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Physical signs

Unfortunately it is very difficult to predict exactly what will happen – your experience is unique to you.  The condition you are dying from and any other health problems you have will affect the kind of symptoms you will develop as your condition deteriorates.

For some people there is a sudden, massive deterioration suggesting the last weeks or days of life are here.  For others there is a steady almost unnoticeable decline over many months.  Sometimes something else happens that can speed up the dying process – for example picking up a chest infection or having a bad fall.

Trying to pin point exactly when someone enters the dying phase of their life can be very difficult.  This is why most doctors will be vague when answering questions about how long someone has left to live; counting in terms of days, weeks or months rather than exact time frames.

Some diseases do follow a predictable path and this can help the health care professionals looking after you to give you information about what is to come and to answer your questions.

If there are any websites specific for your diagnosis it may be useful to look at them for more detailed information.


Included here are a few examples:

  • People dying from chronic lung disease, lung cancer or heart failure are likely to become more breathless
  • People dying from chronic kidney disease may develop swelling and breathlessness or itchy skin and nausea and vomiting
  • People dying from liver diseases may become jaundiced (skin turns yellow), develop severe itching and a very swollen tummy. 

There are some features common to many dying people regardless of their diagnosis. These features can help indicate that a person is in the last few weeks of life:

  • Increasing weakness and lethargy
  • Spending more time asleep
  • Reduced need for food and drink
  • Skin changes – skin may swell and develop a doughy texture
  • Voice changes – hoarseness or a weak quiet voice
  • Swallowing problems
  • Weight loss
  • Pain

Don’t forget that all these signs can be attributed to something other than dying – they are significant here because they are occurring in someone known to have a severe life threatening illness. 

End of Life Care
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