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Deficiency of Vitamin A: What to Know

Last modified on February 28th, 2023

A deficiency of vitamin A can lead to several symptoms. This fat-soluble vitamin is necessary for many essential functions. For example, it plays a role in:

Certain groups are at a higher risk of deficiency of vitamin A include:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • Infants and children
  • People with cystic fibrosis
  • Individuals with chronic diarrhea

Below we’ll talk about:

  • What vitamin A is
  • The health benefits of vitamin A
  • Deficiency of vitamin A symptoms

What is Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. There are two types. There is preformed vitamin A. Preformed vitamin A is found in poultry, meat, fish, and dairy products. The second type is provitamin A. This type of vitamin is found in fruits, vegetables, and plant products.

If you choose to take a supplement, you’ll usually find it has provitamin A, more specifically, a type called beta-carotene.

Foods with the vitamin include:

  • Beef liver and organ meats
  • Some fish, such as salmon
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Orange and yellow vegetables like squash and carrots
  • Fruits, including mangoes and apricots
  • Dairy products
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

Many people get enough of this vital nutrient from their diet. Deficiency is rare, but it does happen.

Technically, vitamin A isn’t one single vitamin. Instead, it’s a collection of compounds. These compounds are called retinoids. Some foods provide retinol. Your body can use retinol directly as vitamin A. Others provide provitamin A, which your body then converts into a vitamin.

Animal sources contain retinol that is ready for your body to use. Plant sources provide carotenoids, like beta-carotene, which is an antioxidant that’s converted into vitamin A.

Because some types of the vitamin are actually converted, you may see ingredients list the content of this vitamin as “vitamin A RAE.” RAE stands for retinol activity equivalents.

What Are Fat-Soluble Vitamins?

There are four fat-soluble vitamins. The first is A. Vitamins D, E, and K are also fat-soluble. These vitamins are in foods with fat, and your body absorbs them like dietary fat. The other type of vitamin is water-soluble. B vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble. Your body can best absorb fat-soluble vitamins when you have them with high-fat foods.

Fat-soluble vitamins, while essential to your health, can become toxic if your levels are too high. Your body doesn’t get rid of excess fat-soluble vitamins as it does with water-soluble vitamins.

Health Benefits of Vitamin A

We’ve been trained to view fat as a bad thing, which is why a deficiency of some fat-soluble vitamins may be more prevalent than we think. In reality, healthy sources of fat are vital.

The following are some of the benefits of vitamin A.


Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyesight. One of the first signs of deficiency is night blindness, also known as nyctalopia. The vitamin is required to convert the light hitting your eye into an electrical signal. That signal can then be sent to your brain.

If you have night blindness, it can mean you see normally during the day, but in darkness, your vision is reduced because your eyes have difficulty picking up lower light levels.

If you have adequate levels of beta-carotene from your diet or supplements, it can slow declines in eyesight that many people experience with aging.

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world. We don’t know the exact causes of AMD, but it could be due to damage to the retina from oxidative stress. A study where people over 50 were given beta-carotene supplements reduced their risk of developing advanced macular degeneration by 25%.

Reduced Risk of Some Cancers

Vitamin A plays a role in the growth and development of cells. In observational studies, researchers have found that higher amounts of vitamin A as beta-carotene can reduce the risk of some types of cancer, including bladder, lung, and cervical cancers and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Taking vitamin A supplements hasn’t thus far shown the same benefits, though, nor is vitamin A from animal sources. In terms of cancer prevention, the benefits seem to come from plant-based sources of the vitamin.

It seems that ensuring you get enough vitamin A from plant-based foods can help with healthy cell division, reducing the risk of cancer, or at least some types.

Immune System Health

When you have adequate levels of vitamin A, it supports the health of your immune system. It also helps your body maintain its overall natural defenses. The vitamin is involved in the production and function of white blood cells. When you have a deficiency of vitamin A, it can increase the likelihood of getting an infection. A lack of vitamin A can also cause it to take longer for you to recover when you get sick.

In countries where diseases like malaria and measles are common, researchers find that correcting a deficiency of vitamin A in children can lower the risk of dying of the conditions.

Reduction of Acne

Acne is a chronic skin disorder that stems from inflammation. It tends to occur when you have acne because your sebaceous glands are clogged with oil and dead skin. The sebaceous glands are found in the hair follicles on your skin. They produce sebum, a waxy substance that keeps your skin lubricated.

Vitamin A deficiency may increase the risk of acne because it causes too much production of keratin in your hair follicles. That then makes it harder for your dead skin cells to be removed from your hair follicles, contributing to blockages.

Bone Health

Along with protein and calcium, vitamins A and D play critical roles in supporting bone health, including growth and development. People with lower blood levels of vitamin A are at higher risk for bone fractures than those with healthy levels.

Growth and Reproduction

This vitamin is an important part of fertility and reproductive health in men and women. This vitamin helps ensure the normal growth and development of embryos during pregnancy.

In animal studies of male rats, a deficiency can block the development of sperm cells, leading to infertility. In animal studies of females, a deficiency of vitamin A can affect egg quality and implantation in the womb.

When you’re pregnant, the vitamin is associated with the growth and development of major structures and organs of your unborn child, including the skeleton, nervous system, heart, and lungs.

At the same time, having too much vitamin A during pregnancy can cause birth defects, so you have to be careful about balancing your consumption.

Symptoms of a Deficiency of Vitamin A

When you’re experiencing a deficiency of vitamin A, some of the symptoms can include:

Dry Skin

Many people underestimate the role diet and nutrition play in their skin health. Vitamin A helps create and repair skin cells. Vitamin A also fights inflammation that stems from skin issues.

There’s some evidence a vitamin A deficiency can contribute to the development of eczema and similar skin issues. Eczema is a condition characterized by dry, inflamed, and itchy skin.

Dry Eyes

Eye problems are one of the primary signs of a vitamin A deficiency. In some more severe cases, if you don’t get enough of the nutrient, it could lead to complete blindness or something called Bilot’s spots, which indicate dying corneas.

Dry eyes or difficulty producing tears are initial signs of deficiency of this vitamin. Using a supplement can help with symptoms of dry eyes.

Night Blindness

In severe cases of deficiency, night blindness can occur. For example, in developing nations where the population often has low levels of nutrients, night blindness rates are especially high. In one study, women with night blindness were given the vitamin either from food or as a supplement, improving the condition. In six weeks, the ability to adapt to the darkness increased by more than 50%.


Vitamin A is required for healthy reproduction, fertility in men and women, and fetal development. If you’re having difficulty getting pregnant, you might want a doctor to check your vitamin levels. A deficiency in the vitamin is also related to miscarriages and birth defects.

For example, a study looked at the blood levels of certain nutrients in women who had repeated miscarriages and found they had low levels of the vitamin.

Delayed Growth in Children

Children who don’t get enough of this vitamin may have stunted growth, but supplements can help with this.

Frequent Chest and Throat Infections

If you have frequent infections, particularly involving your chest or throat, it could indicate you’re deficient. Although mixed, vitamin A supplements help with respiratory tract infections in some research. In one study of elderly people, having high blood levels of provitamin, beta-carotene helped protect against respiratory infections.

Slow Healing of Wounds

This fat-soluble vitamin helps your body create collagen. Collagen is necessary for skin health. Research shows that oral and topical A can help your skin become stronger and healthier. Taking oral vitamin A in animal studies has been shown to improve collagen function and help wounds heal faster.

Acne and Skin Breakouts

One symptom of a deficiency of vitamin A is aches. The vitamin combats inflammation and promotes healthier skin, so when you have adequate levels, it may help prevent or treat acne and breakouts.

Can You Get Too Much Vitamin A?

While the symptoms of a deficiency of vitamin A can lead to serious health complications, you have to be careful with this fat-soluble vitamin. Too much is dangerous.

Hypervitaminosis A or vitamin A toxicity doesn’t usually come from eating many foods high in the vitamin. More often, it’s from taking high-dose supplements over extended periods of time.

When you take a lot of it in supplement form, the excess of the vitamin is stored in your liver. Then, when it’s stored in the liver, it can cause toxicity. Symptoms of hypervitaminosis A can include changes in vision, bone swelling, rough or dry skin, confusion, and mouth ulcers.

If you’re pregnant, you have to be especially careful not to have too much vitamin because it can lead to birth defects.

How Much Vitamin A Do You Need?

The following overviews the upper limit for preformed vitamin A from all sources, including food, drinks, and supplements.


Upper Limit

Birth to 12 months

600 mcg

Children 1-3 years old

600 mcg

Children 4-8 years old

900 mcg

Children 9-13 years old

1700 mcg

Teens 14-18 years old

2800 mcg

Adults 19 and older

3000 mcg

Frequently Asked Questions

The following are brief answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about a deficiency of Vitamin A.

What are the symptoms of low vitamin A?

Some of the symptoms of low vitamin A can include:

  • Night blindness
  • Xerophthalmia is a condition where your eyes are very dry and crusty. This condition can damage the cornea and retina.
  • Frequent infections—particularly related to the chest and throat.
  • Skin irritation
  • Bitot spots
  • Acne
  • Stunted growth

Which disease is caused due to deficiency of vitamin A?

Deficiency of vitamin A can raise the risk of several diseases, including certain cancers. The deficiency is often associated with night blindness and conditions that lead to damage to the cornea and retina.

How do you fix vitamin A deficiency?

If you’re deficient in this vitamin, the best way to correct it is to get more from your diet. Many foods have vitamin A, including liver, beef, oily fish, eggs, chicken, and plant-based foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, and mangoes.

You can also fix a vitamin A deficiency with a supplement, but you need to be careful about your dosage because toxicity can occur.

Who is most at risk for deficiency of vitamin A?

Deficiency of this vitamin is considered relatively rare in developing countries, but it does happen. The highest-risk groups include pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children. If you have chronic diarrhea, gut health issues, cystic fibrosis, and some liver problems, you may also be at higher risk of a deficiency.

Final Thoughts—Deficiency of Vitamin A

While it’s not extremely common, deficiency of vitamin A can and does happen and can have serious health effects. Fat-soluble vitamins are an area of our health that many of us need to take a closer look at. We tend to avoid high-fat foods that can offer significant value to our health, and perhaps it’s time to reframe our thinking.

deficiency of vitamin A, vitamin A deficiency, symptoms of vitamin A deficiency, health effects of vitamin A deficiency

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Ashley Sutphin Watkins
Ashley Sutphin Watkins is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's a medical content writer, journalist and an avid researcher of all things related to health and wellness. Ashley lives near the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee with her family.
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