By E.J. Mundell
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 23, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Millions of Americans pop zinc supplements at the first sign of the common cold. Now, new research suggests the nutrient might play a role in COVID-19 outcomes, too.
Researchers from Spain reporting at a European coronavirus conference found that hospitalized COVID-19 patients with low blood levels of zinc tended to fare worse than those with healthier levels.
"Lower zinc levels at admission correlate with higher inflammation in the course of infection and poorer outcome," said a team led by Dr. Roberto Guerri-Fernandez of the Hospital Del Mar in Barcelona.
One expert in the United States said the finding makes intuitive sense.
"It has long been thought that zinc bolsters the immune system," said pulmonologist Dr. Len Horovitz, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "A possible explanation in this study is that zinc may have an anti-inflammatory effect that is protective."
In the new study, Guerri-Fernandez's team tracked medical outcomes against the results of lab tests for 249 patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 in March and April. Patients averaged 63 years of age and 21 (8%) died from their illness.
All of the patients had their blood zinc levels tested upon arrival -- the average level was 61 micrograms per deciliter of blood (mcg/dL).
However, among those who died of COVID-19, blood levels of zinc were much lower, averaging just 43 mcg/dL, the researchers reported. In contrast, blood levels among those who survived the illness averaged 63 mcg/dL.
Also, higher levels of zinc in the blood were tied to lower levels of pro-inflammatory proteins when patients were infected, the Spanish researchers said.
Overall, and after adjusting for factors such as age, gender, illness severity and treatments received, every unit increase of zinc in the blood was tied to a 7% lowering of the odds that a patient would die while in the hospital, the study found.
Still, the finding can't prove cause and effect, and the study group was relatively small, so "further studies are needed to assess the therapeutic impact of this association," Guerri-Fernandez and his colleagues said in a conference news release.
The findings were presented online Tuesday as part of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease (ESCMID) Conference on Coronavirus Disease. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.