URL of this page: //medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002400.htm

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver.

There are two types of vitamin A that are found in the diet.

  • Preformed vitamin A is found in animal products such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods.
  • Provitamin A is found in plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables. The most common type of pro-vitamin A is beta-carotene.

Vitamin A is also available in dietary supplements. It most often comes in the form of retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate (preformed vitamin A), beta-carotene (provitamin A) or a combination of preformed and provitamin A.

Function

Vitamin A helps form and maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucus membranes, and skin. It is also known as retinol because it produces the pigments in the retina of the eye.

Vitamin A promotes good eyesight, especially in low light. It also has a role in healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Vitamin A is found in two forms:

  • Retinol: Retinol is an active form of vitamin A. It is found in animal liver, whole milk, and some fortified foods.
  • Carotenoids: Carotenoids are dark-colored dyes (pigments). They are found in plant foods that can turn into active form of vitamin A. There are more than 500 known carotenoids. One such carotenoid is beta-carotene.

Beta-carotene is an antioxidant. Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by substances called free radicals.

Free radicals are believed to:

  • Contribute to certain long-term diseases
  • Play a role in aging

Eating food sources of beta-carotene may reduce the risk for cancer.

Beta-carotene supplements do not seem to reduce cancer risk.

Food Sources

Vitamin A comes from animal sources, such as eggs, meat, fortified milk, cheese, cream, liver, kidney, cod, and halibut fish oil.

However, many of these sources, except for Vitamin A fortified skim milk, are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

The best sources of vitamin A are:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Eggs
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Fortified skim milk
  • Orange and yellow vegetables and fruits
  • Other sources of beta-carotene such as broccoli, spinach, and most dark green, leafy vegetables

The more deep the color of a fruit or vegetable, the higher the amount of beta-carotene. Vegetable sources of beta-carotene are fat- and cholesterol-free. Their absorption is improved if these sources are eaten with a fat.

Side Effects

DEFICIENCY:

If you do not get enough vitamin A, you have more risk of eye problems such as:

  • Reversible night blindness
  • Non-reversible corneal damage known as xerophthalmia

Lack of vitamin A can lead to hyperkeratosis or dry, scaly skin.

HIGH INTAKE:

If you get too much vitamin A, you can become sick.

  • Large doses of vitamin A can also cause birth defects.
  • Acute vitamin A poisoning most often occurs when an adult takes several hundred thousand IUs of vitamin A.
  • Chronic vitamin A poisoning may occur in adults who regularly take more than 25,000 IU a day.

Babies and children are more sensitive to vitamin A. They can become sick after taking smaller doses of vitamin A or vitamin A-containing products such as retinol (found in skin creams).

Large amounts of beta-carotene will not make you sick. However, high amounts of beta-carotene can turn the skin yellow or orange. The skin color will return to normal once you reduce your intake of beta-carotene.

Recommendations

The best way to get the daily requirement of important vitamins is to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, fortified dairy foods, legumes (dried beans), lentils, and whole grains.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine -- Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) Recommended Intakes for individuals of vitamin A:

Infants (average intake)

  • 0 to 6 months: 400 micrograms per day (mcg/day)
  • 7 to 12 months: 500 mcg/day

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamins is how much of each vitamin most people should get each day. The RDA for vitamins may be used as goals for each person.

Children (RDA)

  • 1 to 3 years: 300 mcg/day
  • 4 to 8 years: 400 mcg/day
  • 9 to 13 years: 600 mcg/day

Adolescents and adults (RDA)

  • Males age 14 and older: 900 mcg/day
  • Females age 14 and older: 700 mcg/day (for females aged 19 to 50, 770 mcg/day during pregnancy and 1,300 mcg/day during breastfeeding)

How much of each vitamin you need depends on your age and gender. Other factors, such as pregnancy and your health, are also important. Ask your health care provider what dose is best for you.

Alternative Names

Retinol; Retinal; Retinoic acid; Carotenoids

References

Mason JB. Vitamins, trace minerals, and other micronutrients. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 218.

Ross CA. Vitamin A deficiencies and excess. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 61.

Salwen MJ. Vitamins and trace elements. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 23rd ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2017:chap 26.

So YT. Deficiency diseases of the nervous system. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 85.

Review Date 2/2/2019

Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, CNSC, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.