An Overview of Zinc Deficiency

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Zinc is an essential mineral that is present in many types of food. A deficiency of this mineral can cause a number of health effects, such as decreased immune function, diarrhea, and more. The symptoms of a zinc deficiency do not start until zinc levels have been low for several months.

Inadequate zinc can be caused by low intake in your diet, but some medical conditions like sickle cell disease can make you more susceptible to this deficiency. Diagnosis of zinc deficiency can be complicated because it is not a standard blood test. Your levels, along with your symptoms and diet history, may help identify a lack of in zinc as the cause of your symptoms.

Eating foods that are rich in zinc may be the solution for your zinc deficiency, and sometimes supplements are necessary.

Symptoms

Low zinc can cause a variety of problems. They may not be noticeable right away. And if you are deficient in this essential mineral, you are likely to experience some of the effects, but not necessarily all of them.

Common effects associated with zinc deficiency include:

  • Frequent symptoms of the common cold
  • Diarrhea
  • Delayed wound healing
  • A weak immune system
  • Predisposition to infections
  • A skin rash, especially around the mouth
  • Skin ulcers
  • Vision problems due to an increased risk of age-related macular degeneration
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Abnormal taste and/or smell sensation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • A predisposition to frequent asthma exacerbations

The effects of zinc deficiency are vague, which makes it difficult to recognize.

Many of the symptoms associated with zinc deficiency can also occur with other nutritional deficiencies and medical problems. You may also have other nutritional deficiencies along with your zinc deficiency, which could potentially cause additional effects.

Pregnant Women, Breastfeeding, and Babies

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can develop the effects of zinc deficiency because their growing baby requires zinc, and can only get it from the mother. This can leave the mother's body with lower amounts of zinc.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about nutritional supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

In addition to the other effects of zinc deficiency, babies with zinc deficiency can have slowed growth and may not gain weight as they should for their age.

Causes

Low intake of zinc in the diet is a cause of this nutritional deficiency. However, even if you consume enough zinc, there are some risk factors that can lower your zinc levels, including medical illnesses. Additionally, some medications and other nutrients can interfere with your absorption of zinc, causing you to become deficient.

Medical conditions that can lead to zinc deficiency include:

Dietary routines that can lead to low zinc include:

  • A vegetarian diet can lead to a zinc deficiency
  • Iron supplements can interfere with zinc levels
  • Babies who are exclusively breastfed may develop a zinc deficiency, so supplements may be necessary

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), medications such as diuretics, antibiotics, and penicillamine may reduce zinc levels.

How Zinc Deficiency Affects the Body

Zinc helps with a number of different processes in the body. It is considered an antioxidant that helps repair the effects of oxidative damage. It is also involved in growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence.

Zinc plays a beneficial role in the immune system and in wound healing. But zinc has an interesting role in the immune system, and a deficiency can cause the immune system to be underactive or overactive.

The relationship between zinc and asthma is believed to occur because low levels of zinc are associated with increased production of mast cells, basophils, and B-cells, cells that are part of the immune system's role in asthma exacerbations.

Diagnosis

Because the symptoms of zinc deficiency can be very non-specific, mild forms may be difficult to diagnose. If you have signs of zinc deficiency, it could be due to a deficiency in this mineral, or it could be due to something else.

You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, who will take a detailed medical history and do a physical examination. You may also need diagnostic tests as part of your evaluation.

Blood Tests

You may need several blood tests to help evaluate the cause of your symptoms. A zinc level is not necessarily the first test you would have for evaluation of your condition, however.

You are likely to have a complete blood count (CBC). This test can provide information about whether you could have an infection (often indicated by high white blood cells), or anemia (indicated by a change in red blood cell count and/or size). Infections and anemia often cause symptoms similar to those of zinc deficiency.

You may have your standard electrolyte levels, such as calcium, potassium, sodium, and chloride checked as well. These values can reflect nutritional deficiencies and medical illnesses. Your doctor may also request thyroid hormone tests because thyroid disease causes some of the same symptoms as zinc deficiency.

You may also have your zinc level checked. According to Mayo Clinic Laboratories, the normal reference range is 0.60-1.20 mcg/mL for children under age 10 and under, and it is 0.66-1.10 mcg/mL for children over age 10 and for adults.

Mild zinc deficiency may not be reflected in blood zinc levels, and you can have a normal blood zinc level even if you have a slight deficiency of the mineral.

Treatment

You may need to increase your intake of zinc by getting more of it in your diet. Sometimes, however, dietary supplements are needed.

The recommended amount of daily zinc intake was developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The recommendations are given by age.

Daily recommendations of zinc intake are:

  • Children 0–6 months old: 2 mg
  • Children 7–12 months old: 3 mg
  • Children 1–3 years old: 3 mg
  • Children 4–8 years old: 5 mg
  • Children 9–13 years old: 8 mg
  • Adults and children 14 years old and older: 11 mg for males and 9 mg for females

Women who are pregnant should have 12 mg per day of zinc, and women who are breastfeeding should have 13 mg per day of the mineral.

Oysters contain an especially high concentration of zinc per serving. Only three ounces of oysters provide 74 mg of zinc, which is substantially more than an adult needs to consume per day.

Most other foods contain substantially less zinc than oysters, but a healthy diet can easily provide you with your recommended zinc intake. For example, pork chops contain 2.9 mg of zinc per 3-ounce serving, and almonds contain 0.9 mg of zinc per one-ounce serving.

Foods that contain zinc include:

  • Red meat
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Seafood, especially crab and lobster
  • Fish, such as flounder
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt

Supplements

If you have a condition that interferes with your ability to absorb zinc from a reasonable dietary intake, you may need to take oral (by mouth) supplements. Be sure to discuss supplements with your doctor and to take it as recommended.

Zinc supplements can interfere with your copper level, and some zinc supplements have copper as well.

Zinc Toxicity

You can experience zinc toxicity if you take excessive doses.

Symptoms of zinc toxicity can include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

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.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that if you have a zinc deficiency, there is a high likelihood that you could also have another nutritional deficiency as well.

If you have nutritional deficits, the effects can be slow in developing, and they may be vague and hard to pinpoint. Be sure to discuss your overall sense of well being with your doctor at your yearly checkup—or sooner—if you notice symptoms.

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