Signs and symptoms of vitamin A deficiency — and how to treat it
- One of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency is poor vision at night or in dim lights.
- People with intestinal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease are at a greater risk of developing vitamin A deficiency.
- Vitamin A deficiency can be treated with a high dose supplement.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
While vitamin A is available in everything from meat and fish to colorful fruits and vegetables, there is still a risk of deficiency. Thankfully, changes to your diet and supplement use can help ensure your vitamin A levels are sufficient and stable.
Here's how to recognize the symptoms and signs of vitamin A deficiency and what you can do to treat it.
What does vitamin A do?
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin stored in the liver and fat tissues. It is important for a variety of bodily functions, but especially for cell differentiation. Cell differentiation occurs in adults whenever tissue renews itself either from damage or disease. It is the process by which cells become specific to parts of the body, such as brain cells, eyes cells, and skin cells, says Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD.
Due to Vitamin A's role in cell differentiation, it's important for repairing skin and maintaining eye health. Vitamin A also acts as an antioxidant, helping to reduce inflammation and supporting immune system response, says Bansari Acharya, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Detroit, Michigan.
Signs and symptoms of vitamin A deficiency
The first symptom of a vitamin A deficiency is night blindness, a condition in which people lose the ability to see in the dark, says Reaver. That's because vitamin A helps develop the molecules that help you see color that are also required for night vision.
If vitamin A deficiency is left untreated, the temporary night vision can develop into a condition known as xerophthalmia. Xerophthalmia is an umbrella term used for signs of a vitamin A deficiency in the eyes, such as corneal xerosis — when the cornea appears dry and hazy. Xerophthalmia is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness worldwide, says Reaver.
Night blindness can be reversed by consuming adequate amounts of vitamin A, says Reaver. However, once a person's vision progresses to complete blindness, changing their vitamin A intake is not adequate enough to restore their sight.
Other signs of vitamin A deficiency include:
- Dry eye
- White spots in the eye
- Rashes on the skin
- Delayed wound healing
- Difficulty getting pregnant
- Increase in infections like measles, cholera, and the flu
- Increase in severity of illnesses
How much vitamin A do I need?
When a person does not meet their daily recommended intake of vitamin A, they become deficient. The amount of vitamin A needed varies by gender and age.
What causes vitamin A deficiency?
It is rare for people living in developed countries to have a vitamin A deficiency. For instance, in the United States, less than 1% of people are vitamin A deficient.
The condition is more prevalent in food-insecure countries where people don't have access to either a variety of healthy foods, an adequate amount of food, or both.
According to Reaver, the risk of becoming vitamin A deficient is especially high for the following individuals in food-insecure countries:
- Pregnant women
- Lactating women
Vitamin A deficiency can occur in infants who are not regularly consuming enough breastmilk or formula. It can also occur in developing countries where chronic diarrhea is common in children, says Acharya.
In more developed countries, Reaver says those who are at risk for developing a vitamin A deficiency include:
- Anyone with an intestinal disease such as celiac and inflammatory bowel syndrome
- Intestinal cancer
- Minimal food intake, such as due to an eating disorder
- Liver disease
These conditions can lead to a vitamin A deficiency due to malnourishment, lower intake of the nutrient, or issues with absorbing fat.
If you believe you have a vitamin A deficiency, visit a doctor as soon as possible to receive an accurate diagnosis.
Your doctor will order a blood test to determine the amount of vitamin A in your blood. Normal vitamin A ranges from 15 to 60 mcg/dL (micrograms per deciliter), so anything below 15 mcg/dL is considered deficient.
Acting swiftly can prevent long-term consequences like blindness from developing.
How to treat vitamin A deficiency
Vitamin A deficiency can be treated in two ways, says Reaver:
- A high dose prescription supplementation
- Increasing your dietary intake of foods high in vitamin A
Adding vitamin A into your diet is often the first course of action, but supplements may be necessary depending on the severity of an individual's symptoms, Acharya says. How much vitamin A you need from supplementation depends on age:
|0–12 months||600 mcg||--||--|
|1–3 years||600 mcg||--||--|
|4–8 years||900 mcg||--||--|
|9–13 years||1,700 mcg||--||--|
|14–18 years||2,800 mcg||2,800 mcg||2,800 mcg|
|19+ years||3,000 mcg||3,000 mcg||3,000 mcg|
Foods high in vitamin A include:
The bottom line
Vitamin A deficiency is uncommon in developed countries like the United States.
People, especially children, and pregnant women, who live in countries that lack access to adequate amounts of healthy foods and clean water are at a higher risk of becoming vitamin A deficient.
Signs of deficiency include night blindness and rashes. Vitamin A deficiency can be treated through supplementation or increasing the amount of vitamin A-rich foods you eat.
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