Comfort care for terminally ill patients. The appropriate use of nutrition and hydration

JAMA. 1994 Oct 26;272(16):1263-6. doi: 10.1001/jama.272.16.1263.


Objective: To determine the frequency of symptoms of hunger and thirst in a group of terminally ill patients and determine whether these symptoms could be palliated without forced feeding, forced hydration, or parenteral alimentation.

Design: Prospective evaluation of consecutively admitted terminally ill patients treated in a comfort care unit.

Setting: Ten-bed comfort care unit in a 471-bed long-term care facility.

Participants: Mentally aware, competent patients with terminal illnesses monitored from time of admission to time of death while residing in the comfort care unit.

Main outcome measures: Symptoms of hunger, thirst, and dry mouth were recorded, and the amounts and types of food and fluids necessary to relieve these symptoms were documented. The subjective level of comfort was assessed longitudinally in all patients.

Results: Of the 32 patients monitored during the 12 months of study, 20 patients (63%) never experienced any hunger, while 11 patients (34%) had symptoms only initially. Similarly, 20 patients (62%) experienced either no thirst or thirst only initially during their terminal illness. In all patients, symptoms of hunger, thirst, and dry mouth could be alleviated, usually with small amounts of food, fluids, and/or by the application of ice chips and lubrication to the lips. Comfort care included use of narcotics for relief of pain or shortness of breath in 94% of patients.

Conclusions: In this series, patients terminally ill with cancer generally did not experience hunger and those who did needed only small amounts of food for alleviation. Complaints of thirst and dry mouth were relieved with mouth care and sips of liquids far less than that needed to prevent dehydration. Food and fluid administration beyond the specific requests of patients may play a minimal role in providing comfort to terminally ill patients.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Fluid Therapy
  • Humans
  • Hunger*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York
  • Nursing Homes / standards*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Palliative Care / psychology*
  • Parenteral Nutrition
  • Prospective Studies
  • Quality of Life
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Terminal Care / methods
  • Terminal Care / psychology
  • Terminal Care / standards*
  • Thirst*
  • Withholding Treatment
  • Xerostomia / therapy