If You Hear Someone Breathing Like This, They're Probably About To Die

Depending on the cause of a person's demise, what it sounds like when someone takes their final breath can take a couple of forms. It can be silent and peaceful, like slipping into a dream, or it can sound like a nightmare full of sporadic gasps, moans, and gurgles. The latter is known as agonal breathing, and it is just as terrifying as it sounds. Sometimes mentioned alongside the term "death rattle," this type of gasping can be scarring for anyone who witnesses it. It's not pretty, it's not always quick, and it's genuinely horrifying. 

Most people have probably had this morbid thought: What does it sound like what someone is dying? This type of breathing sounds desperate and pained, and it can go on for minutes or longer, even after the rest of your body is gone. It can happen after a heart attack, and can even happen while you're passing in your sleep. Beyond that, there are some agonal breathing facts that are likely to leave you breathing a little heavier, and perhaps feeling a little nauseated. This list contains videos of agonal breathing, which can be very distressing. 

  • Agonal Breathing Is Nothing Short Of Horrifying

    Agonal Breathing Is Nothing Short Of Horrifying
    Video: YouTube

    For those who have never seen agonal breathing before, watch the above video with caution; it is an incredibly unnerving experience. There are several aspects of this phenomenon that make it particularly startling. When a person experiences agonal breathing, they may convulse slightly, and their face may contort even if they're not conscious. They will gasp for air, and their mouth may open and close as they gasp.

    Watching it happen - especially to someone you know - can leave you feeling helpless and afraid. Their breaths may gurgle, snort, and they even moan at times. When this happens to someone who is already effectively deceased, it can seem otherworldly. Even medical personnel can be pretty shaken by agonal breathing before they have experience with it. Redditor/u/bombaybicyclecub recalls how terrified they were to experience this sort of breathing: 

    My first code was during my second semester of nursing school. He had coded about 20 minutes before I was able to get to his room, and they had pretty much already decided they couldn't save him. So, they were letting all the students have a round of performing compressions. Afterwards, the doctor had called it and the students were leaving. As I was walking around the bed, he started violently gasping for air. I didn't know what agonal breathing was and it was the scariest thing I've ever seen. I immediately burst into tears.

  • It's Not Actually Breathing

    It's Not Actually Breathing
    Photo: Unknown / Pexels / Public Domain

    Although these gasps may seem like a person is breathing - frantically or sporadically so - what is happening is not really breathing. The normal rate of respiration is between 15 and 20 breaths per minute. Agonal breathing rates - when it happens more than once - can be as low as three to four breaths per minute.

    Agonal breathing also happens sporadically rather than in any sort of regular rhythm. Most important to remember, however, is agonal breathing isn't bringing oxygen to the body the way that normal breathing does. While it is the body's attempt to get oxygen to the organs, it is not sufficient to keep a person alive and is a sign they are quickly on their way out. 

  • It May Go On For Hours

    It May Go On For Hours
    Photo: Unknown / Max Pixel / Public Domain

    While agonal breathing can be occasional and may happen only once or twice as a person's final breaths, that is not always the case. Depending on the cause of agonal breathing, it can go on for just a few minutes, or it can go on for multiple hours at a time. For the most part, agonal breathing comes on at the very end of a person's life and will occur naturally without any prompting or provocation from outside sources.

    However, in the case of treatment withdrawal or when a person is taken off of a ventilator, these actions can bring on prolonged agonal breathing. These gasps may continue on and off for a longer period of time than if a person is in the final stages or is experiencing a sudden stroke or cardiac arrest. Even when they happen for a long time, though, they are still normally a sign the end is near.

  • Agonal Breathing Is The Brain's Way Of Trying To Get Oxygen

    Agonal Breathing Is The Brain's Way Of Trying To Get Oxygen
    Photo: DrOONeil / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    So why exactly does the body do this? To put it simply, a person's brain is trying to save their life. Agonal breathing is the body's final attempt to get oxygen to organs, even if it's not a very effective means of doing so.

    When the heart stops pumping blood or isn't pumping enough blood, the brain doesn't get the oxygen it needs. As the brain starves for oxygen, it reaches a state of ischemia, and it turns on a reflexive type of breathing in order to stay alive. This is meant to keep the body alive as long as possible and is an attempt to restart breathing and regulate heart rhythm. In short, it makes the person gasp.

    In order to make the body do this, the brainstem tells the diaphragm and the muscles in the jaw to spasm. This jerks air into the lungs in irregular intervals.

  • People May Think You're In Pain Or Distress

    People May Think You're In Pain Or Distress
    Photo: Xu-Gong / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    If you begin experiencing agonal breathing, it's not likely you'll know it. Most agonal breathing occurs when someone is not conscious, but if others around you are witnessing it, they are probably going to freak out. 

    People experiencing agonal breathing sometimes do so with opened eyes and with a slack jaw. Their body may jerk suddenly, and their head may move back and forth. Perhaps most frightening, however, is the sound. Agonal breathing can sound like gasping, gurgling, snorting, or may even come out in moans. With all of that going on, it's going to look like you're in pain.

    Unfortunately, this can also lead to people pushing for heroic measures for those who are in hospice care and at the end of their life. Nurses and other medical professionals will discourage family members from demanding CPR or other life-saving measures for these patients. As one professional, Redditor/u/GO4BoJack, tells of their experience:

    I was called to the bedside for the agonal breathing, and the family started to talk about how maybe we should do CPR. I talked to them how these were her last moments, and they should be with their loved one and hold her and speak to her, and that starting CPR would likely not change the fact she was dying [...] but it would prevent them and her from having this meaningful moment at the end of her life. They went and held her hand and she took only another few breaths before [she was gone].

  • It Is Sometimes Called The 'Death Rattle'

    You may have heard the term "death rattle" before, and it is often closely compared to agonal breathing. This is in reference to the sort of croaking or rattling a person's breathing makes in the final moments of life. In reality, though, the rattle and agonal breathing are not quite the same

    The notorious rattle is a gurgling sound made when a person is fading and their body creates excess saliva or mucus. When you expire, you don't swallow or move this mucus from your lungs and throat the same way you do when you're alive and functional, so breathing sounds wet and sticky. This sound can occur when a person is still breathing normally, even though they are near the end.

    Agonal breathing, on the other hand, is irregular, brief, without any real rhythm, and can happen without the gurgling sound caused by excess saliva and mucus. However, agonal breathing may still have that rattle sound; the two are just not the same term.