An Overview of Zinc Deficiency

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Zinc is an essential mineral that is present in many types of food. Not getting enough of this mineral can cause a number of health effects, including 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 not getting enough of it in your diet. Some medical conditions like sickle cell disease can also make you more susceptible.

Diagnosis of zinc deficiency can be complicated because it isn't a standard blood test. Your levels, along with your symptoms and diet history, may help identify low zinc.

You may be able to improve symptoms by eating foods that are rich in zinc. However, for some people, supplements are necessary.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of zinc deficiency. It also covers how it's diagnosed and what you can do to treat it.

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Symptoms

Low zinc can cause a variety of problems. They may not be noticeable right away. If you are deficient in this mineral, you may 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
  • More likely to get 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
  • Worsening asthma symptoms

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 could also have another nutritional deficiency along with a zinc deficiency, which could potentially cause additional effects.

Recap

Low zinc can cause a wide variety of issues, including diarrhea, cold symptoms, weight loss, difficulty concentrating, and hair loss. Symptoms can be vague, making them difficult to recognize.

Pregnant Women, Breastfeeding, and Babies

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can develop the effects of zinc deficiency. That's 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 healthcare provider 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. They may not gain weight as they should for their age.

Causes

Zinc deficiencies can be caused by not getting enough zinc in your diet.

However, even if you consume enough zinc, there are some risk factors that can lower your zinc levels, including illnesses. Also, 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 with low zinc
  • Iron supplements, which can interfere with zinc levels
  • Babies who are exclusively breastfed (and may require zinc supplements)

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

Recap

Low zinc levels can be caused by not getting enough in your diet. It may also be caused by medical conditions that lower zinc levels or medications that interfere with zinc absorption.

How Zinc Deficiency Affects the Body

Zinc helps with a number of different processes in the body. It is considered an antioxidant, which helps protect cells from 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. A zinc 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. These cells are part of the immune system's role in worsening asthma symptoms.

Diagnosis

Because the symptoms of zinc deficiency can be very non-specific, mild forms may be difficult to diagnose. Signs of zinc deficiency could also be could be due to something else.

You should discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider, 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.

You are likely to have a complete blood count (CBC). This test can provide information about whether you could have an infection or anemia. An infection is indicted by high white blood cells, while anemia can cause a change in red blood cell count 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 healthcare provider may also request thyroid hormone tests. 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. The normal range for children over age 10 and adults is 0.66-1.10 mcg/mL.

Mild zinc deficiency may not be reflected in blood zinc levels. 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: 2mg
  • Children 7–12 months old: 3mg
  • Children 1–3 years old: 3mg
  • Children 4–8 years old: 5mg
  • Children 9–13 years old: 8mg
  • Adults and children 14 years old and older: 11mg for males and 9mg for females

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

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

Most 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 2.9mg of zinc per 3-ounce serving, and almonds contain 0.9mg of zinc per 1-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

Recap

Dietary recommendations for zinc differ based on age. For adults, the recommendations are 11mg for males and 9mg for females. Oysters have a high concentration of zinc, but you can also get zinc in foods like red meat and beans.

Supplements

If you have a condition that interferes with your ability to absorb zinc from foods, you may need to take supplements. Be sure to discuss these with your healthcare provider and take them 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.

Summary

Zinc deficiencies can lead to a variety of health effects, such as diarrhea, cold symptoms, rash, vision problems, or weight loss.

Your doctor may order blood tests to help diagnose a zinc deficiency. They may also order other tests to rule out other conditions or vitamin deficiencies.

To help treat a zinc deficiency, you can start by eating foods that have zinc. Oysters are rich in zinc, but you can also get it from foods like red meat, nuts, and beans. Some people may need dietary supplements.

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. Talk with your doctor about your overall sense of well-being at your yearly checkup or sooner if you notice symptoms.

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