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Zinc deficiency

3-minute read

What is zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency is when the body does not have enough of the mineral zinc. Zinc is important for the immune system, wound healing, and normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence.

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency can result in skin changes that look like eczema at first. There may be cracks and a glazed appearance on the skin, often found around the mouth, nappy area and hands. The rash doesn’t get better with moisturisers or steroid creams or lotions.

People with zinc deficiency may also experience:

  • hair loss
  • changes in their nails
  • diarrhoea
  • more infections
  • feeling irritable
  • loss of appetite
  • impotence
  • eye problems
  • weight loss
  • wounds that take a long time to heal
  • lack of taste and smell

Zinc deficiency can slow a child’s growth and delay them reaching sexual maturity.

What causes zinc deficiency?

Some people cannot get their daily requirement of zinc in their diet. Protein helps the body to absorb zinc, so vegetarians and vegans, and people on long-term restricted diets, may be more at risk. Children on restricted diets and babies who are exclusively breastfed longer than 6 months may also experience zinc deficiency.

Zinc deficiency can happen in people who have problems absorbing nutrients, for example, older people and those who have some gut diseases. Some medicines can also increase the loss of zinc through urine.

Sometimes newborn babies experience zinc deficiency if they are premature or very sick, or if their mothers had a mild zinc deficiency. Some people are born with zinc deficiency.

How is zinc deficiency diagnosed?

If you think you or child may have zinc deficiency, see your doctor. They may do a blood test, although this is not very reliable for people with mild deficiency.

Often the best way of diagnosing zinc deficiency is to see if the symptoms improve with a zinc supplement. If you or your child have skin problems related to zinc deficiency, they should start to clear up within 72 hours of taking a supplement.

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How is zinc deficiency treated?

Extra zinc can be obtained from a supplement, usually in the form of a pill or capsule. Your doctor will recommend the right dose for you, depending on your symptoms. Zinc can also be obtained from some multi-vitamin supplements or cold remedies that contain zinc.

It’s important to follow your doctor’s or pharmacist’s recommendations, as having too much zinc can lead to diarrhoea or vomiting, and can interfere with other nutrients you need such as copper and iron. You should not take more than 40mg of extra zinc a day, unless your doctor tells you to.

Can zinc deficiency be prevented?

The best way to avoid zinc deficiency for most people is to eat foods that are high in zinc. These include oysters, meat and fish. Smaller amounts of zinc can be found in cereals, legumes, dairy foods and seeds.

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Last reviewed: March 2021

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