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Last updated October 26, 2019. 8 minute read

Zinc deficiency: 8 common signs and symptoms

Zinc is a mineral and trace element that’s crucial to your body in many ways. To prevent low levels, a medical professional may advise you to take a multivitamin, which generally contains the mineral, but oral zinc is also available on its own.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

There’s a very real infertility crisis going on in the United States—and not just for women. As of 2013, over 9% of American men aged 15-44 had experienced fertility problems (Chandra, 2013). And a study of 43,000 men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand found that sperm counts per milliliter of semen dropped by nearly 60% between 1973 and 2011 (Levine, 2017). Even if you’re not thinking of kids yet, you should care about your sperm health, which could be as easy as preventing zinc deficiency.

Zinc is a mineral and trace element that’s crucial to your body in many ways. Although only trace amounts are needed (the recommended dietary allowance is 11mg per day for adult men and 8mg per day for adult women), this micronutrient helps keep your body functioning properly by playing a key role in wound healing and immune function, cell division, and the formation of DNA and proteins. It’s also vital for growth and development and influences taste and smell, and can potentially slow age-related macular degeneration.

Vitals

  • Zinc is a mineral and trace element that’s crucial to your body in many ways.
  • Even mildly low serum zinc levels can have an impact on immune function.
  • There are several groups of people who have a higher chance of becoming zinc deficient. In the United States, infants breastfeeding and older adults have the highest risk.
  • To prevent low levels, a medical professional may advise you to take a multivitamin, which generally contains the mineral, but oral zinc is also available on its own.

Symptoms of zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency can be hard to diagnose (we’ll get to that), which is why you need to know the signs and symptoms. Since some of them are nonspecific (many conditions could cause the same thing), it will help your healthcare practitioner if you can recognize and describe your experience with them. Here’s what you need to know about what you may experience if your zinc levels get too low, who’s most at risk for developing a mild or severe zinc deficiency, and how health professionals will go about diagnosing you.

Although all of these can be signs of zinc deficiency, it’s important to note that not everyone’s experience will be the same. You could have these symptoms if your serum zinc levels get too low, or you may not. You may have other symptoms altogether, as everyone’s body may show signs a little differently.

Loss of appetite

Dr. Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says a loss of appetite is a telltale sign of low zinc levels. But while medical professionals see patients with low zinc who report diminished appetite, studies tend to go in the other direction. This mineral is so closely tied with appetite that one study showed zinc supplementation successfully boosted calorie intake in patients with anorexia (Khademian, 2014). Although more studies need to be done specifically in humans to clarify zinc’s role, it is believed that zinc influences appetite because of how it affects ghrelin (Suzuki, 2011). This hormone, sometimes referred to as “the hunger hormone” stimulates appetite, increases food intake, and promotes fat storage.

Weakened immune system

Even mildly low serum zinc levels can have an impact on immune function (Prasad, 2008). A meta-analysis showed that zinc supports your immune system enough that supplementing with the mineral can reduce the duration and severity of the common cold—as long as it’s taken early (Rao, 2011). Although more research needs to be done, preliminary work seems to show that lozenges made of zinc gluconate are as effective as zinc acetate (Hemilä, 2017). So instead of agonizing over the decision at the drugstore, you can simply pick one and start your supplement regimen. (Just be careful with those zinc nasal sprays as people have reported dulled sense of smell as a side effect.)

Weight loss

Low zinc is also known for causing weight loss. Zinc manipulates levels of ghrelin and leptin, the satiety hormones, in your body. That’s why lower than ideal zinc levels can leave you without an appetite and, as a result, unintentional weight loss.

Diarrhea

Unfortunately, you’ll need to watch for diarrhea on either side of your zinc intake. Taking too much can cause this unpleasant symptom, as well as having a deficiency. Diarrhea can also make a deficiency in this crucial mineral worse because it prevents proper absorption. That’s also serious because zinc is essential for immune response to gut issues that could potentially cause loose stool. So if you already know you’re deficient—even if you’re already on a treatment plan—and have been suffering from diarrhea for several days, it’s time to call your healthcare provider.

Inability to heal wounds

It’s difficult to overstate how vital this mineral to this process. The role of zinc in wound healing is multidimensional. Getting the right amount of zinc allows for every step of this process to happen (Lin, 2017). Elemental zinc is required for coagulation (blood clotting at the wound site), immune defense where you were hurt, and skin cell repair to eventually get it back to normal. It’s even vital to scar formation and synthesis of protein and collagen.

Dulled sense of taste or smell

Older adults are especially prone to losing their sense of taste and smell if they’re not getting adequate zinc (Pisano, 2016). In America, deficiency may not be too common, but it’s estimated that 20–25% of adults ages 60 and older don’t get enough zinc—even after supplements are counted (NIH, 2019).

Hair loss

Hair loss, or alopecia, is an extremely common sign of zinc deficiency (Saper, 2009), although not everyone with low zinc will develop it. Luckily, it seems like this effect of zinc levels being too low can be reversed or alleviated by bringing up serum zinc levels. In one small study, hair loss slowed or was cured by zinc supplementation in people who were deficient and suffering from alopecia (Karashima, 2012). In another, 9 out of 15 patients saw an improvement, though researchers say this isn’t significant enough to make conclusions about the role of zinc (Park, 2009). More work needs to be done, but dietary zinc can be an easy and safe way to bring up low numbers and potentially slow or stop hair loss.

Hypogonadism

Our daily zinc needs are relatively low, but they increase for pregnant women. Zinc is vital for proper growth and development for babies in the womb, and low zinc can cause growth retardation. This is especially pronounced in the reproductive system, in which a zinc deficiency can cause arrested puberty. One example of this is Prasad Syndrome (Karaca, 2007), caused by deficiencies of iron and zinc, which is characterized by skin changes, anemia (a lack of or dysfunction of red blood cells in the blood), and hypogonadism (when sex glands produce little or no sex hormones), among other symptoms.

Who is at risk for a zinc deficiency?

There are several groups of people who have a higher chance of becoming zinc deficient. In the United States, infants breastfeeding and older adults have the highest risk. Pregnant women can also easily suffer from low zinc levels, though, since their needs go up as their baby develops. Alcoholics are also at a greater risk due to malabsorption. People with sickle cell disease also have a higher risk.

Chronic diseases that affect zinc absorption are also risk factors, including liver disease, Crohn’s disease, and acrodermatitis enteropathica, a rare genetic disorder that binds zinc, causing many symptoms that align with zinc deficiency such as alopecia, dermatitis, and diarrhea. People taking proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to reduce stomach acid may also suffer from low zinc levels since the medication interferes with absorption.

Diagnosis of zinc deficiency

Medical professions may use more than one test to see if you’re low in the vital mineral. That’s because zinc is distributed throughout the cells of your body in very small amounts. Because of this, while there are a few tests professionals may try, none of them are 100% accurate. You may have normal zinc levels on your testing, even if you are actually zinc deficient.

Your healthcare practitioner could test your plasma zinc, taken from your blood plasma (the yellowish liquid component of blood) if they suspect you’re deficient. But medical professionals may also choose to test for zinc concentration through a urine test or hair analysis. Once they’ve confirmed your diagnosis, they’ll work with you on getting to the root of the problem. It’s relatively easy to get enough zinc through our dietary intake, so if your serum zinc is low, it may be a symptom of an underlying condition.

Treatments of low zinc

The plan for treating low serum zinc levels depends on how bad the deficiency is. “At the hospital, we either give IV push zinc, or we recommend 220mg zinc sulfate daily for 14 days,” Dr. Hunnes explains. (Zinc acetate is another common form of the mineral used to treat deficiencies.) Patients will start to feel better quite quickly, though. “Depending on how severe the deficiency is, it may take a few days to ‘fix,'” she says, “but since we don’t really store zinc, it’s usually a quick turnaround.” In cases of severe zinc deficiency, improving zinc status may require high-dose supplementation. Unfortunately, not all the symptoms go away as quickly as your numbers can rebound. “Hair growth takes a while to recover from,” Dr. Hunnes says.

Supplements and dietary zinc

If you’re going to use supplements, you should always follow medical advice. Having too much zinc can also be dangerous. To prevent low levels, a medical professional may advise you to take a multivitamin, which generally contains the mineral, but oral zinc is also available on its own. You may not need to supplement, though, since the recommended daily allowance is relatively easy to hit for omnivores. (The dietary reference intake guidelines limit daily zinc intake to 40 mg (Inst. of Medicine, 2001), a number based on when zinc starts to interact negatively with our copper levels.) 

Adding red meat, poultry, and oysters to your diet can significantly boost your zinc intake to hit the recommended dietary allowance. Whole grains also contain the trace element, though some like oats contain phytate or phytic acid, a compound found in bran and seeds that hinders zinc absorption. One way around this is choosing fortified breakfast cereals made with whole grains to boost dietary intake. Fortification appears to sidestep this interaction that causes malabsorption (Lönnerdal, 2000). Vegans and vegetarians can lean on legumes such as peanuts, chickpeas, and beans since they have a solid amount of zinc.