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Zinc Poisoning | Toxicity, Symptoms & Overdose Treatments

A table with different types of food that contain zinc.

Zinc is a natural element that we all need in our diets but ingesting too much can lead to unwanted side effects and zinc poisoning. At the start of the pandemic, a popular belief spread that zinc can help fight against COVID-19. Acute or short-term cases of zinc poisoning remain rare, however, many people are adding zinc supplements to their daily routine without understanding how much is too much.

What Is Zinc Good for?

Zinc helps our immune system function and promotes healthy metabolism. It is needed to make proteins, heal wounds, and maintain our sense of smell and taste. Zinc is an essential nutrient for our bodies that is obtained through our diet or supplementation.

What Does Zinc Help With Colds?

Zinc may help prevent colds, but zinc isn’t a cure. Some studies show that zinc could help reduce symptoms and may shorten how long they last following infection with the rhinovirus-a virus that can cause the common cold. Zinc may also stop the virus from sticking to the mucous membrane of the nose and throat. But zinc will not stop you from catching a cold if you are exposed to the virus. The best cold prevention is frequent hand washing, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and not touching your face with unwashed hands.

Zinc & COVID-19

At the start of the pandemic, before vaccines, some researchers explored which supplements could help defend the body from COVID-19. Zinc is one of the minerals that may boost the immune system and help fight against COVID-19. Evidence is unclear that zinc will prevent you or your family from contracting COVID or that it is an effective COVID treatment.

As COVID spread across the country, people began taking zinc supplements without talking with their doctors to understand how much they should take and if these supplements would interact with their current medication regimen. Certain medications can increase or decrease the amount of zinc in your body, and zinc can reduce the absorption of some antibiotics. As always, talk with your doctor before starting all new supplements.

How to Get Enough Zinc in Your Diet

In general, having a varied diet is enough to obtain the amount of zinc and other important nutrients your body needs. But if someone is low on zinc, doctors may prescribe over-the-counter zinc supplements or zinc lozenges to boost their levels.

What Foods Are High in Zinc?

There’s a variety of foods rich in zinc, from animal products to plant foods. In most cases, it’s easy for people to consume an adequate amount.

Some foods that are highest in zinc include:

  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish
  • Fish
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Eggs
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy products
  • Vegetables such as mushrooms, peas, kale, & beet greens

Zinc Deficiency Signs

Overall, severe zinc deficiency is rare. People who are at risk are those that suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder, persons taking immune-suppression medicine, infants who are being breastfed if their mother is low on zinc, and people with underlying medical conditions (Crohn’s disease, Cystic fibrosis, or Sickle cell disease). . Mild cases of zinc deficiency are more common.

Some symptoms that may be caused by a lack of zinc in the body include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased immunity
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Dry skin
  • Fertility issues
  • Weakened wound healing

Can You Have Too Much Zinc?

Although rare, it is possible to have too much zinc because the body can’t easily remove the excess amount. When zinc enters the body, it’s absorbed in the small intestine and binds to the blood protein albumin. In most cases, it is very unlikely someone would absorb too much zinc just from their diet. Zinc poisoning is mainly caused when someone takes over the suggested daily doses of a zinc supplement for a prolonged period of time. It’s important to talk with your health care provider to find out the correct dosage and do not exceed the recommended amount.

What Are the Signs of Zinc Poisoning?

Every case is different, but the signs of zinc toxicity may include:

  • Stomach upset
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

How Is Zinc Poisoning Treated?

The best thing to do if someone is concerned about zinc poisoning or overdose is to call the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 and talk with a specially trained nurse or pharmacist. Treatment is individualized and often can be managed at home.

In severe cases, treatment in a hospital may be needed. Short-term use of supplements or a single mistake is not likely to cause serious risk. It is important to talk with your doctor or health care provider before starting any new medication or supplements to avoid side effects and possible medication reactions.

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