Pneumonia is the sixth-leading cause of death in the US. Sadly, antibiotics alone often aren’t enough to save the lives of pneumonia patients when their immune systems are so weak.

The good news is that adding a nutrient “booster” to the antibiotics has been shown to prevent more pneumonia deaths, according to a new study.

The best part is that this nutrient is both cheap and easy to find.


The study took place in a developing country, Uganda, and it looked only at kids under five years old, but the researchers told me that its findings apply to people of all ages all over the world—even those in developed countries. Researchers looked at 352 male and female children between six months old and five years old who were suffering from severe pneumonia. In addition to getting the prescribed antibiotics, half of the children received a daily supplement pill that contained the current Ugandan Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of zinc (10 milligrams per day for children under one year old and 20 milligrams per day for older children) and the other half received a daily placebo pill. (The US RDA is slightly lower.) Before starting treatment, the average level of zinc in the blood of all the children was measured and found to be below the normal range.

Findings: Children receiving zinc supplements were much less likely to die from the pneumonia. Within seven days, about 4% of the children receiving zinc died, while 12% of the children receiving the placebo died. (Remember, all received the same antibiotic treatment.) Researchers followed the children for only seven days, because due to past research they suspected that a child who survived pneumonia would likely have recovered by the seventh day of treatment. But they did not track how many (if any) children died after seven days.

According to one of the study authors, James Tumwine, MBChB, MMed, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and child health at the School of Medicine at Makerere University in Uganda, zinc increased survival because the children were deficient in zinc and the added zinc may have helped boost their immune systems. For example, zinc increases the function of T-cells (types of white blood cells), as well as the hormone thymulin, both of which help increase immunity.


If you think that the only people who are deficient in zinc are those in developing countries or are young children, think again. For example, the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has found that about 35% to 45% of Americans age 60 or older aren’t getting as much zinc as they should. And vegetarians also are at risk for zinc deficiency—not only because they do not consume the foods that are high in zinc (such as oysters and meat), but also because two staples of their diets, legumes and whole grains, contain phytates which inhibit zinc absorption.

Many people do not know whether they’re zinc deficient. And you can have a healthy level for years and then it can suddenly drop once an infection such as pneumonia develops, said Dr. Tumwine, so asking a doctor to check your level at your annual checkup doesn’t necessarily do any good.

If you get pneumonia, ask your doctor whether taking a daily zinc supplement or getting more of it through foods including red meat, poultry, oysters, nuts and zinc-fortified cereals may boost recovery. The RDA for zinc in the US for adults is 11 milligrams (mg) per day for men over age 19 and 8 mg per day for women over age 19. For kids, it varies:

  • 7 months to 3 years old: 3 mg
  • 4 to 8 years old: 5 mg
  • 9 to 13 years old: 8 mg
  • 14 to 18 years old: males, 11 mg; females, 9 mg
  • 19 and older: males, 11 mg; females, 8 mg

Fortunately, zinc is a mineral that’s cheap and widely available. The cost of a zinc supplement is just pennies per tablet, and you can find zinc wherever nutritional supplements are sold.