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What Is Vitamin A Deficiency?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 12, 2021

Vitamins are an important part of your diet. They are a group of substances that are consumed in small amounts that help support your overall wellbeing. Vitamin A specifically is necessary for maintaining healthy eyes, good vision, healthy skin, and helps you fight off infection.

Because the human body can't produce vitamin A on its own, you must incorporate it into your diet in other ways.

When you don't get enough vitamin A in your diet, you may be at risk of developing a vitamin A deficiency. Over time, this can lead to numerous health concerns including vision problems, decreased immunity, and death.

Luckily, you can treat mild forms of vitamin A deficiency without any long-term problems. A severe deficiency is much more common in countries experiencing challenging socioeconomic conditions as well as limited to no access to vitamin A-rich foods.

Who Is At Risk for a Vitamin A Deficiency?

A vitamin A deficiency is prevalent in Africa and Southeast Asia, where it is estimated that 250 million preschoolers suffer from it due to a lack of carotenoids — yellow, orange, and red organic pigments that are produced by plants and algae — in their diet. Symptoms are made worse by serious infection, particularly measles.

Vitamin A deficiency can also occur in adults with diseases of the gastrointestinal system that interfere with absorption of vitamin A. These may include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Bile duct disorder
  • Giardiasis
  • Duodenal bypass

Symptoms of a Vitamin A Deficiency

Symptoms of a vitamin A deficiency can differ in severity. Some people may have more serious complications than others. Below are several possible symptoms you may experience:

  • Night blindness. This causes you to have trouble seeing in low light. It will eventually lead to complete blindness at night.
  • Xerophthalmia. With this condition, the eyes may become very dry and crusted, which may damage the cornea and retina.
  • Infection. A person with a vitamin A deficiency can experience more frequent health concerns as they will not be able to fight off infections as easily.
  • Bitot spots. This condition is a buildup of keratin in the eyes, causing hazy vision.
  • Skin irritation. People experiencing vitamin A deficiency could have problems with their skin, such as dryness, itching, and scaling.
  • Keratomalacia. This is an eye disorder involving drying and clouding of the cornea — the clear layer in front of the iris and pupil.
  • ‌Keratinisation. This is a process by which cells become filled with keratin protein, die, and form tough, resistant structures in the urinary, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts.
  • Stunted growth. Not having enough vitamin A could delay growth or cause children to experience slow bone growth or stunted growth.
  • Fertility. A deficiency in vitamin A may cause challenges when trying to conceive a child, and in some cases, infertility.

How is Vitamin A Deficiency Diagnosed?

A doctor will begin by completing an eye exam and review your medical history. They may also complete a blood test to measure the amount of vitamin A in your blood.  

Because vitamin A deficiency is more common in impoverished areas with limited medical access, the diagnosis is often made informally. For instance, if a mother comments that her child is experiencing night blindness, the doctor may assume that a vitamin A deficiency is the cause.   

How is Vitamin A Deficiency Treated?

The treatment for mild forms of vitamin A deficiency includes eating vitamin A-rich foods. For more severe forms, a doctor may recommend eating more foods containing vitamin A in combination with taking vitamin supplements. 

What Foods Contain Vitamin A

Liver. This type of food contains large amounts of vitamin A. One helping of liver contains more than the recommended minimum intake of vitamin A for a week.

Fish. Oily fish, shellfish, and cod liver oil all contain quite a bit of vitamin A and can be eaten with meals or consumed as vitamin supplements.

Vegetables. Orange vegetables have the highest level of vitamin A. The most common ones include sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, and squash. Other green leafy vegetables like spinach, greens, and lettuce are also great options. Experts recommend cooking or processing these veggies to get the full benefit of vitamin A so that it's easier for the body to digest and absorb its nutritional value.

Dairy products. Milk is generally a good source of vitamin A, although the amount in skim milk is lower than in full cream milk. Many soft cheeses may contain vitamin A as well, although cheddar cheese contains more than others.

Fruits. Common fruits with the highest level of vitamin A are often orange — ripe mango, papaya, cantaloupe melon, and apricots — which can be consumed dried or fresh.

Vitamin A is most readily absorbed in fat particles in the gut or intestine, so it's helpful to incorporate some healthy fats into your meals. 

The Bottom Line

If you are concerned about your vitamin A levels, contact your doctor to have your vitamin levels checked. This may help your doctor diagnose any underlying conditions.

People with underlying conditions — which may put them at risk of various deficiencies — should regularly check in with their doctor. They should keep an eye on their vitamin levels and make any necessary adjustments.  ‌

While vitamin A deficiency is rare because many foods are rich in this vitamin, it can still occur in some people. If you notice any signs of severe deficiency, such as nighttime blindness, you should contact a doctor immediately. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

AMERICAN ACADEMY OF OPHTHALMOLOGY: "What Is Vitamin A Deficiency?"

DermNet: "Vitamin A deficiency."

Patient: "Vitamin A Deficiency."

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