Vitamin A got its name because it was the first vitamin ever discovered. The pre-formed type—retinol—can be found in milk, liver, fortified cereals and eggs. Meanwhile, your body can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A after consumption, and excellent sources of beta-carotene include plant sources like carrots, peas, tomatoes, bell peppers and spinach.
Since you need vitamin A to maintain everything from immune system function to eye health and digestive processes, serious physical problems can begin to develop if you’re deficient in vitamin A. Whether you think you might not be getting enough vitamin A in your diet or you’re suffering from a condition like coeliac disease that limits nutrient absorption, look out for these nine potential signs of a deficiency.
1. Skin problems
A lack of vitamin A can cause a range of different skin problems—acne, persistently dry skin and stubborn infections are all common manifestations. These dermatological issues can crop up anywhere, and it’s worth noting that sore eyelids are frequently associated with vitamin A deficiency.
2. Hair and scalp changes
The skin of your scalp can also suffer from the changes mentioned above, developing patches of acne or chronic dryness. In less severe cases, you may only notice that you’re suddenly suffering from dandruff or that your hair seems dry. This type of dryness can be caused by sensitivity to hair products or by a simple case of dermatitis, but should be considered a warning sign of nutrient deficiency when combined with other new symptoms.
3. Frequent illnesses
Given the role of vitamin A in immune system function, it’s unsurprising that a lack of the vitamin leaves your whole body vulnerable to opportunistic infections. Some of the most frequently resulting illnesses are respiratory infections, recurring throat infections, and gastroenteritis. Some people with vitamin A deficiency are also prone to frequent bladder infections, manifesting in lower abdominal pain, a burning sensation during urination, and a constant urge to urinate even when the bladder should be virtually empty. Blood may also appear in the urine.
4. Night blindness and eye changes
If you have a severe vitamin A deficiency, your night vision might be so diminished that you find you’re utterly blind in the dark. Vitamin A is intimately connected with eye health in general, so your eye doctor may spot a thinned cornea, or mention that foamy patches have developed across the white of the eye. You might also experience blurred vision and eye aches due to dryness—vitamin A is necessary for proper tear production.
Most women develop at least one case of vaginal thrush in their lifetime—a fungal infection causing itching, redness, burning and a thick discharge. In many cases, something like scented shower gel, tight underwear or perfumed “feminine hygiene” products will be to blame. However, some repeated bouts of thrush are the result of a vitamin A deficiency, so it’s always worth having bloodwork done if you’re getting thrush more than a couple times a year.
6. Slow wound healing
Cuts and grazes should heal up pretty rapidly, especially if superficial. If it is taking increasingly long for your wounds to heal, then an underlying disease like diabetes or arthritis may be the culprit. However, if your inflammatory markers and glucose levels come back normal, you may be lacking the right levels of vitamin A. It’s also worth noting that a zinc deficiency is another nutritional deficit that can cause slow wound healing, and may be accompanied by symptoms like weight loss and an impaired sense of smell or taste.
7. Fingernail changes
Low levels of vitamin A lead to dry, easily broken fingernails. If you don’t bite your nails or constantly apply polish to them, it’s definitely worth asking your doctor whether a vitamin A deficiency could be to blame for this annoying and sometimes painful symptom.
8. Mouth pain
A lack of vitamin A also leads to oral discomfort for a few different reasons. Firstly, you may be more prone to developing mouth ulcers—especially ones that are large and take a long time to heal. Secondly, you might suffer from dry and easily cracked lips, even if you apply a lip moisturizer and don’t spend much time in the cold. Oral thrush also develops in some cases, which typically presents as white plaques on the tongue that have painful red tissue underneath.
9. Reproductive problems
Men who are deficient in vitamin A can experience problems conceiving due to reduced sperm production, while studies show an increased risk of miscarriage in women who aren’t getting enough vitamin A.
Finally, a word of warning: remember that you should always have a potential vitamin A deficiency officially diagnosed by your doctor so that you can receive adequate guidance. Never just start taking supplements, as vitamin A can be stored in your body for an extremely long time, and toxicity can develop as a result of an inappropriate high intake.