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Should Antibiotic Treatment Be Used Toward the End of Life?

Around 50% of patients develop an infection in the final months, weeks, or days before their deaths. Diagnosing an infection is complex because of the presence of symptoms that are often nonspecific and that are common in patients in decline toward the end of life. Use of antibiotic therapy in this patient population is still controversial, since the clinical benefits are not clear and the risk of pointless overmedicalization is very high.


For patients who are receiving palliative care, the following factors predispose to an infection:

  • Increasing fragility

  • Bedbound status and anorexia/cachexia syndrome

  • Weakened immune defenses owing to disease or treatments

  • Changes to skin integrity, related to venous access sites and/or bladder catheterization

Four-Week Cutoff

For patients who are expected to live for fewer than 4 weeks, evidence from the literature shows that antimicrobial therapy does not resolve a potential infection or improve the prognosis. Antibiotics should therefore be used only for improving symptom management.

In practice, the most common infections in patients receiving end-of-life care are in the urinary and respiratory tracts. Antibiotics are beneficial in the short term in managing symptoms associated with urinary tract infections (effective in 60% to 92% of cases), so they should be considered if the patient is not in the agonal or pre-agonal phase of death.

Antibiotics are also beneficial in managing symptoms associated with respiratory tract infections (effective in as much as 53% of cases), so they should be considered if the patient is not in the agonal or pre-agonal phase of death. However, the risk of futility is high. As an alternative, opioids and antitussives could provide greater benefit for patients with dyspnea and cough.

No benefit has been observed with the use of antibiotics to treat symptoms associated with sepsis, abscesses, and deep and complicated infections. Antibiotics are therefore deemed futile in these cases.

In unclear cases, the “2-day rule” is useful. This involves waiting for 2 days, and if the patient remains clinically stable, prescribing antibiotics. If the patient’s condition deteriorates rapidly and progressively, antibiotics should not be prescribed.

Alternatively, one can prescribe antibiotics immediately. If no clinical improvement is observed after 2 days, the antibiotics should be stopped, especially if deterioration of the patient’s condition is rapid and progressive.

Increased body temperature is somewhat common in the last days and hours of life and is not generally associated with symptoms. Fever in these cases is not an indication for the use of antimicrobial therapy.

The most common laboratory markers of infection (C-reactive protein level, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, leukocyte level) are not particularly useful in this patient population, since they are affected by the baseline condition as well as by any treatments given and the state of systemic inflammation, which is associated with the decline in overall health in the last few weeks of life.

The choice should be individualized and shared with patients and family members so that the clinical appropriateness of the therapeutic strategy is evident and that decisions regarding antibiotic treatment are not regarded as a failure to treat the patient.

The Longer Term

In deciding to start antibiotic therapy, consideration must be given to the patient’s overall health, the treatment objectives, the possibility that the antibiotic will resolve the infection or improve the patient’s symptoms, and the estimated prognosis, which must be sufficiently long to allow the antibiotic time to take effect.

This article was translated from Univadis Italy, which is part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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