Clinical manifestations of zinc deficiency

Annu Rev Nutr. 1985;5:341-63. doi: 10.1146/


The essentiality of zinc for humans was recognized in the early 1960s. The causes of zinc deficiency include malnutrition, alcoholism, malabsorption, extensive burns, chronic debilitating disorders, chronic renal diseases, following uses of certain drugs such as penicillamine for Wilson's disease and diuretics in some cases, and genetic disorders such as acrodermatitis enteropathica and sickle cell disease. In pregnancy and during periods of growth the requirement of zinc is increased. The clinical manifestations in severe cases of zinc deficiency include bullous-pustular dermatitis, alopecia, diarrhea, emotional disorder, weight loss, intercurrent infections, hypogonadism in males; it is fatal if unrecognized and untreated. A moderate deficiency of zinc is characterized by growth retardation and delayed puberty in adolescents, hypogonadism in males, rough skin, poor appetite, mental lethargy, delayed wound healing, taste abnormalities, and abnormal dark adaptation. In mild cases of zinc deficiency in human subjects, we have observed oligospermia, slight weight loss, and hyperammonemia. Zinc is a growth factor. Its deficiency adversely affects growth in many animal species and humans. Inasmuch as zinc is needed for protein and DNA synthesis and for cell division, it is believed that the growth effect of zinc is related to its effect on protein synthesis. Whether or not zinc is required for the metabolism of somatomedin needs to be investigated in the future. Testicular functions are affected adversely as a result of zinc deficiency in both humans and experimental animals. This effect of zinc is at the end organ level; the hypothalamic-pituitary axis is intact in zinc-deficient subjects. Inasmuch as zinc is intimately involved in cell division, its deficiency may adversely affect testicular size and thus affect its functions. Zinc is required for the functions of several enzymes and whether or not it has an enzymatic role in steroidogenesis is not known at present. Thymopoeitin, a hormone needed for T-cell maturation, has also been shown to be zinc dependent. Zinc deficiency affects T-cell functions and chemotaxis adversely. Disorders of cell-mediated immune functions are commonly observed in patients with zinc deficiency. Zinc is beneficial for wound healing in zinc-deficient subjects. In certain zinc-deficient subjects, abnormal taste and abnormal dark adaptation have been noted to reverse with zinc supplementation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acrodermatitis / complications
  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / complications
  • Burns / complications
  • Deficiency Diseases / diagnosis
  • Deficiency Diseases / drug therapy
  • Diet
  • Endocrine System Diseases / etiology
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / complications
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / etiology
  • Gonads
  • Growth Disorders / etiology
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease / complications
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / etiology
  • Kidney Diseases / complications
  • Liver Diseases / complications
  • Liver Diseases / etiology
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Sensation
  • Skin Diseases / complications
  • Wound Healing
  • Zinc / deficiency*
  • Zinc / therapeutic use


  • Zinc