Artificial Hydration and Nutrition: Answers to common questions about what to do if your family member can’t eat or drink

Questions about whether or not to provide artificial nutrition and hydration (AHN) are some of the most common-and most distressing-for caregivers. When a family member becomes ill and can no longer eat, families are often faced with a difficult decision about whether or not they should provide artificial nutrition to their loved one. Below are some answers to common questions families often have about this complicated issue.

What is artificial hydration and nutrition?

While there are many different kinds of AHN, there are a few features common to all of them. Always in the form of a liquid, all AHN consists of various amounts of water, proteins, sugars, vitamins and minerals. The amount of each of these ingredients depends on the medical condition and needs of the patient.

How is it given?

AHN is given most often either directly into the stomach or into a vein. If a patient is unable to swallow, there are two ways to get this fluid to the stomach: through a long flexible tube passed from the nose or mouth, or through a small tube placed directly into the stomach.

Are there risks to providing artificial hydration and nutrition?

While providing seriously ill patients with fluids and other nutrients can help them, it can also cause problems. Sometimes when people are very sick the kidneys will work less or shut down altogether, so the body may not be able to get rid of fluid. In these cases, if a patient is given artificial fluids, the legs and arms can swell, and this may be uncomfortable. Fluid can also accumulate in the lungs and make it difficult for the body to get the oxygen it needs.

If I don’t give my family member artificial hydration and nutrition am I killing them?  Are they starving to death?

No. It is always important to remember that patients who can’t eat enough for an extended period of time are very ill. Not providing AHN is simply allowing the underlying disease process to occur naturally. Studies show that seriously ill patients who do not receive AHN do not suffer more, do not feel or complain of hunger and actually may have a more peaceful death than people who are given artificial fluids.