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Copper Deficiency


Larry E. Johnson

, MD, PhD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Reviewed/Revised Jul 2023 | Modified Aug 2023

Copper deficiency is rare among healthy people and occurs most commonly among infants who have other health problems or inherit a genetic abnormality.

Most of the copper in the body is located in the liver, bones, and muscle, but traces of copper occur in all tissues of the body. The liver excretes excess copper into the bile Gallbladder and Biliary Tract The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped, muscular storage sac that holds bile and is interconnected to the liver by ducts known as the biliary tract. (See also Overview of the Liver and Gallbladder... read more Gallbladder and Biliary Tract for elimination from the body. Copper is a component of many enzymes, including ones that are necessary for the following:

  • Energy production

  • Formation of red blood cells, bone, or connective tissue (which binds other tissues and organs together)

  • Antioxidant action (to help protect cells against damage by free radicals, which are reactive by-products of normal cell activity)

Copper deficiency may be acquired or inherited. It is rare among healthy people and occurs most commonly among infants who are

  • Premature

  • Recovering from severe undernutrition

  • Having persistent diarrhea

Some male infants inherit a genetic abnormality that causes copper deficiency. This disorder is called Menkes syndrome.

In adults, copper deficiency may be caused by

Symptoms of Copper Deficiency

Symptoms of copper deficiency include fatigue and weakness due to a decreased number of red blood cells (anemia) and sometimes an increased risk of infections due to a decreased number of white blood cells. Sometimes, osteoporosis Osteoporosis Osteoporosis is a condition in which a decrease in the density of bones weakens the bones, making breaks (fractures) likely. Aging, estrogen deficiency, low vitamin D or calcium intake, and... read more Osteoporosis develops or nerves are damaged. Nerve damage can cause tingling and loss of sensation in the feet and hands. Muscles may feel weak. Some people become confused, irritable, and mildly depressed. Coordination is impaired.

Menkes syndrome, a genetic disorder, causes severe intellectual disability, vomiting, and diarrhea. The skin lacks pigment, and the hair is sparse, steely, or kinky. Bones may be weak and malformed, and arteries are fragile, sometimes rupturing.

Diagnosis of Copper Deficiency

  • Blood tests

Copper deficiency is usually diagnosed based on symptoms and on blood tests that detect low levels of copper and ceruloplasmin (a protein that transports copper through the bloodstream).

Early diagnosis and treatment of copper deficiency seem to result in a better outcome.

Treatment of Copper Deficiency

  • Treatment of the cause

  • A copper supplement or injection

The cause of copper deficiency is treated, and a copper supplement is given by mouth. Severe deficiency can be treated with copper given by vein (intravenously).

For infants with Menkes syndrome, copper is injected under the skin (subcutaneously). Despite treatment, children with Menkes syndrome usually die before they are 10 years old.

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