Zinc Deficiency

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on June 14, 2017Written by Kathryn Watson

Overview

Zinc is a mineral that your body uses for fighting off infections and producing cells. It’s important for healing injuries and creating DNA, the genetic blueprint in all of your cells. If you’re not getting enough zinc in your diet, you may have side effects such as hair loss, lack of alertness, and a reduced sense of taste and smell. Zinc deficiency is rare in the United States, but it still occurs in some people.

Symptoms

Zinc is used by your body in cell production and immune functions. There is still a lot more to learn about zinc, but we do know that zinc is an essential part of growth, sexual development, and reproduction.

When you’re zinc deficient, your body can’t produce healthy, new cells. This leads to symptoms such as:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • wounds that won’t heal
  • lack of alertness
  • decreased sense of smell and taste
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • open sores on the skin

Risk factors

If you’re pregnant and have zinc deficiency, your baby might not have what it needs to develop properly in your womb. And if you and your partner are trying to become pregnant, zinc deficiency could make it difficult. That’s because zinc deficiency may lead to impotence in men.

Read more: The link between zinc and erectile dysfunction »

The people at the highest risk of zinc deficiency in the United States are infants who are breastfeeding and older adults. Pregnant women need more zinc than usual because the zinc in their body is needed to help the developing baby. People with alcoholism are also at risk of deficiency. Some research shows that alcohol makes it harder for your body to digest zinc.

Diagnosing zinc deficiency

Zinc is distributed in trace amounts among the cells in your body, making it difficult to detect zinc deficiency through a simple blood test.

If your doctor suspects a zinc deficiency, they will need to test your blood plasma for an accurate reading. Other tests for zinc deficiency include a urine test and an analysis of a strand of your hair to measure the zinc content.

Sometimes zinc deficiency is a symptom of another condition. For example, some conditions may cause zinc to be processed in your body but not absorbed well. Zinc deficiency can also lead to copper deficiency. Your doctor will be aware of these possibilities. They may do additional testing to get to the root of your deficiency.

Treating zinc deficiency

Diet changes

Long-term treatment for zinc deficiency starts with changing your diet. To start, consider eating more:

  • red meat
  • poultry
  • seeds
  • wheat germ
  • wild rice
  • oysters

If you’re a vegetarian, it might be more difficult to get the amount of zinc you need from the foods you eat. Consider baked beans, cashews, peas, and almonds as alternative sources of zinc.

The United States Department of Agriculture keeps an up-to-date, comprehensive list of foods that are high in zinc. Add more of these foods to your diet to help prevent deficiency.

Supplements

You can also treat your zinc deficiency right away with supplements. Zinc is found in many multivitamin supplements. It’s also found in some cold medicines, though you shouldn’t take cold medicine if you’re not sick. You can also buy supplements that contain only zinc.

If you’re using supplements to boost the amount of zinc in your body, be careful. Zinc can interact with some antibiotics, arthritis medications, and diuretics.

When to call your doctor

In most cases, a zinc deficiency is not an emergency. That said, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding and suspect a zinc deficiency, it’s extremely important that you address it right away. Zinc is essential to healthy development in the womb.

If you know that you are deficient and have diarrhea that lasts for several days, you should call a doctor. Zinc is the mineral that helps your intestines fight off infection, and without it, your infection might become more serious.

As with any condition, you should contact your healthcare provider if you:

  • feel dizzy or nauseous
  • have a sudden headache that will not go away

experience unconsciousness

Outlook

Zinc deficiency happens in the United States. But through dietary changes and supplements, it’s possible to reverse. People with zinc deficiency can address the problem by seeking out sources of zinc and being mindful of what they eat.

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