Zinc Deficiency

Zinc is an essential mineral that is present in many types of food. A zinc deficiency can cause several health effects, including decreased immune function, diarrhea, and more.

The symptoms of a zinc deficiency do not start until levels have been low for several months. Not getting enough of it in your diet, ingesting certain foods, malabsorption conditions, or liver disease are some of the causes of zinc deficiency. 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.


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
  • Depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Worsening asthma symptoms

You could also have another nutritional deficiency and a 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. That's because the 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.


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

However, even if you consume enough zinc, some risk factors 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:

  • Intestinal conditions such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Alcoholism
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Kidney disease

Dietary routines that can lead to low zinc include:

  • A vegetarian diet with low zinc
  • Iron supplements can interfere with zinc absorption
  • 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.1

How Zinc Deficiency Affects the Body

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

Zinc is beneficial for the immune system and in wound healing. A zinc deficiency can cause the immune system to be underactive or overactive.


Because the symptoms of zinc deficiency are non-specific, it may be difficult to diagnose. Many of the symptoms associated with zinc deficiency are also symptoms of other nutritional deficiencies and medical problems. For example, infections, anemia, and thyroid disease often cause symptoms similar to those of zinc deficiency.

You should discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider, who will take a detailed medical history and 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 evaluating 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 often causes high white blood cells (WBCs), while anemia can cause a change in red blood cell (RBC) count or size.
  • You may have your 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 request thyroid hormone tests.

You may have your zinc level checked. 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.


You may need to increase your intake of zinc by getting more of it in your diet. Sometimes 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.1 The recommendations are given by age.

Daily recommendations for zinc intake are:

  • 0 to 6 months: 2 milligrams (mg)
  • 7 to 12 months: 3 mg
  • 1 to 3 years: 3 mg
  • 4 to 8 years: 5 mg
  • 9 to 13 years: 8 mg
  • 14 years and older: 11 mg for males and 9 mg for females

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

Foods that Contain Zinc

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

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


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 Food and Drug Administration (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.


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 to take dietary supplements.