A study shows that zinc stops the immune system from spiralling out of control, as happens when people develop sepsis.
The researchers say the findings could also explain why taking zinc supplements at the start of a cold can stem its severity.
It is thought the finding could have implications for other diseases.
Although research has highlighted the importance of zinc for the immune system, because the mineral has many complex roles in the body it is not understood in any detail how it helps fight off infection.
After previous studies in mice, the researchers from Ohio State University had shown that zinc-deficiency could lead to excessive inflammation.
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