Zinc Deficiency and Worsening Asthma

Do you have a zinc deficiency? Could your asthma and zinc levels in your blood somehow be related?

While not a question commonly asked in my clinic, a patient recently asked me about a study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians that found that patients with allergic asthma had a zinc deficiency compared to patients with other types of asthma. She wanted to know if her worsening asthma symptoms might be related to zinc deficiency and if taking a zinc supplement might improve her asthma.

Zinc is an essential element that can be taken as a dietary supplement and is contained in a number of foods or sometimes added to foods. Zinc is essential for cells to function correctly. It assists a number of different processes in cells and plays a role in the immune system as well as wound healing and growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Without normal zinc levels, your sense of taste and smell can be altered. The amount of zinc you need daily is based off a Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, developed by the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Why Zinc and Asthma?

Zinc is an antioxidant that may have anti-inflammatory properties related to the pathophysiology of asthma.

Low levels of zinc are associated with increased production of mast cells, basophils, and B-cells that are all part of the immune system and the pathophysiology of asthma. Increased production of these parts of the immune system may be associated with asthma symptoms such as:

The recommended amount of daily zinc intake is set by the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Zinc Deficiency and Asthma

Because children with asthma have been found to have lower levels of zinc in their blood and hair, researchers have been wondering what the link between asthma and zinc might be.

However, no direct studies with patients have shown that zinc deficiency causes asthma symptoms, or that zinc supplementation decreases asthma symptoms.

The immune system changes associated with zinc deficiency may also put you at increased risk for pneumonia and other types of infections.


In addition to the increased inflammation and risk of infection noted above, zinc deficiency can be associated with:

  • cold symptoms
  • diarrhea
  • macular degeneration
  • poor wound healing and impaired immune function
  • skin rash, especially around the mouth
  • weight loss
  • abnormal taste
  • difficulty concentrating
  • sexual dysfunction
  • poor growth in babies

Because the symptoms of zinc deficiency can be very non-specific, mild forms of zinc deficiency may be difficult to diagnose. People with certain conditions can also lead to zinc deficiency including:

Foods Containing Zinc

A well-rounded diet will provide the recommended amount of zinc. Oysters contain the most amount of zinc per serving, but the average American will get the majority of zinc from red meat and chicken.

The following foods contain zinc:

  • red meat
  • chicken
  • crab
  • lobster
  • fish such as flounder
  • beans
  • nuts
  • seafood, especially crab and lobster
  • dairy products such as cheese and yogurt

Zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, and zinc acetate are types of zinc that are available as various supplements. Whether pills containing zinc or other essential nutrients provide the same benefits as foods with zinc in them is not really known. This has been one of the big debates in medicine today. We see that populations that eat certain foods have a better medical outcome than others. Science then recommends supplementation, and this does not always have the intended outcome and can sometimes be harmful.

Can You Take Too Much?

You can experience symptoms from taking too much zinc or zinc toxicity with high intake levels. Symptoms can include:

  • abdominal cramping
  • diarrhea
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite

Additionally, you need to make sure that other drugs you are taking do not interfere with zinc. If you take a quinolone antibiotic, like Cipro, while on zinc supplements, you may risk both of them not being absorbed properly. Diuretics like chlorthalidone and hydrochlorothiazide also deplete zinc levels. Zinc can also decrease absorption of penicillamine, a drug used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Nasal gel and sprays containing zinc have been marketed in the past for the treatment of the common cold. The FDA has issued warnings that long-lasting or permanent loss of smell, or anosmia, can result. This led to companies pulling these drugs from the over-the-counter market.

Will Taking Zinc Improve Your Asthma?

To date, the results of currently available studies should not make you run to the health food store to get zinc supplements in order to improve your asthma. There are general health benefits and, at least, theoretical benefits for your asthma for not becoming zinc deficient. However, a well-rounded diet should help you prevent zinc deficiency. Researchers continue to examine the relationship between zinc and asthma to determine if supplementation might lead to better asthma control.

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Article Sources

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  • McKeever TM, Britton J. Diet and asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004 Oct 1;170(7):725-9.
  • Nurmatov U, Devereux G, Sheikh A. Nutrients and foods for the primary prevention of asthma and allergy: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Mar;127(3):724-33.