Beta Carotene

Beta carotene is a compound that is converted into vitamin A in the body, which is essential to the healthy functioning of the eyes, skin, and other parts of the body.

Overview

Some people have low levels of vitamin A, which can lead to health problems such as:

  • Dry eyes
  • Increased risk of eye infection
  • Night blindness (poor vision in low light levels)
  • Skin problems
  • Slower growth in children

Several medical conditions can cause a person to have low vitamin A levels. These include:

  • Conditions that stop the body from absorbing food
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diarrhea
  • Liver disease
  • Long-term injuries
  • Long-term illnesses
  • Pancreas disease

This may be because the illnesses cause the body to require more vitamin A than it normally would, or because the illness is preventing the body from absorbing or using vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiencies can also be caused by not eating a varied and balanced diet, and in the absence of a medical condition, you are able to consume all the vitamin A and beta carotene that your body needs from your diet. Beta carotene is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods, including:

  • Apricots
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash

Where people have deficiencies in vitamin A, they may be prescribed oral beta carotene supplements. Beta carotene is also prescribed for some other conditions, such as macular degeneration and erythropoietic protoporphyria.

Beta carotene is prescribed under brand names such as A-Caro-25 and Lumitene.

Conditions Treated

  • Macular degeneration
  • Photosensitivity reactions such as erythropoietic protoporphyria
  • Vitamin A deficiency

Type of Medicine

  • Vitamin A precursor
  • Antioxidant

Side Effects

Beta carotene may cause a condition called carotenodermia, in which the skin turns slightly yellow. This is typically most prominent on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, and typically develops two to six weeks after you start taking the beta carotene. Carotenodermia is harmless and is a natural consequence of having higher than normal levels of beta carotene in the blood. This condition usually subsides when you reduce the amount of beta carotene that you are taking.

More rarely, and particularly if you are taking higher doses of beta carotene, you may experience the following side effects:

  • Dizziness
  • Loose stools or diarrhea
  • Pain in the joints
  • Unusual bleeding, or receiving bruises easily

If you do experience these symptoms, see your doctor or pharmacist for further advice.

You may experience side effects that are not listed here. Pay attention to your body while you are taking the medication, and if you notice any unusual or concerning side effects, consult your doctor or your pharmacist. They may be able to prescribe you another medication to help remove the side effect, or your dose of beta carotene may be adjusted. You can also report your side effects to the US Food and Drug Administration to help them build a more accurate picture of how the medication can affect people.

Allergic Reactions

Beta carotene is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods, and allergic reactions are very unlikely. However, there may be other active or inactive (filler) ingredients in the tablets that you are allergic to. If you experience any of the symptoms of an allergic reaction, seek immediate medical assistance by calling 911. Such symptoms include:

  • Any problems with your breathing, including wheezing or coughing fits
  • Dizziness, drowsiness or a lack of coordination
  • Skin problems such as hives, severe itching, or rashes
  • Swelling anywhere on the body, but of particular concern if it occurs in the throat or tongue, as this may restrict the airway

Dosage

The dose of beta carotene that you are prescribed will depend on your age and the condition for which you are being treated. Always take your medication as prescribed by your doctor. Usually, your blood carotene concentration will be monitored, and your dose adjusted until a certain level is reached. However, below are guideline doses for certain conditions.

Dietary Supplement

Children: 3 to 6 mg of beta carotene daily - equivalent to 5,000-10,000 International Units of Vitamin A

Teenagers and adults: 6 to 15 mg of beta carotene daily - equivalent to 10,000-25,000 International Units of Vitamin A

Erythropoietic Protoporphyria

Children: 30 to 150 mg of beta carotene daily - equivalent to 50,000-250,000 International Units of Vitamin A

Teenagers and Adults: 30 to 300 mg of beta carotene daily - equivalent to 50,000-500,000 International Units of Vitamin A

Macular degeneration

Children: the dose for juvenile macular degeneration will be determined on a case-by-case basis by your doctor

Adults: 15 mg daily in a preparation containing several other vitamins and minerals, typically ascorbic acid (vitamin C), vitamin E, zinc oxide, and copper.

Take with food

Beta carotene is not readily absorbed by the body unless it is consumed with fat. Therefore it is advisable to take your medication with food containing some fat.

Missed Doses

If you miss a dose of your medication, take it as soon as you remember. However, if it will soon be time to take your next dose, skip your missed dose and carry on with your dosing schedule as normal. The body can store beta carotene in various places, mainly in fat tissues, so missing a single dose is not a cause for concern. You do not need to double your next dose if you miss one.

Interactions

An interaction is when two drugs are taken at the same time and produce undesirable side effects. Discuss with your doctor any medications that you are presently taking in order to ensure that they do not interact with beta carotene. In particular, the following drugs are of concern:

Orlistat

Orlistat is a drug given to obese individuals to help them lose weight. It works by preventing fats from being absorbed by the digestive system. However, since beta carotene is poorly absorbed without the presence of fat, this drug can interfere with its absorption. You should leave a minimum of two hours between your dose of beta carotene and your dose of orlistat.

Lutein

Lutein is another carotenoid. When lutein and beta carotene are taken together, the absorption of both compounds might be reduced. Your doctor may want to adjust the dose of these medications, or they request that you receive more frequent blood tests to determine whether the two medicines are interacting.

Verteporfin

Verteporfin is a drug used to treat people suffering from macular degeneration. If you are taking these two medications at the same time, the effect of the verteporfin may be reduced. Therefore your dose of verteporfin may need to be increased, or you may be given frequent blood tests to see how the two medications are interacting. Your doctor will advise you on the best course of action.

Warnings

Because beta carotene is more easily absorbed by the body when it is consumed with fat, some supplement preparations contain peanut oil. If you have a peanut allergy, be sure to inform your doctor of this, or if you are buying beta carotene over the counter, seek advice from your pharmacist before you take any products.

Beta carotene preparations may contain other active and inactive ingredients. Ensure that you are not allergic or sensitive to any of the ingredients in the product. Discuss this with your doctor if you are unsure.

Although many news outlets and websites report that beta carotene is an effective treatment for cardiovascular disease and for reducing the risk of certain cancers such as lung cancers, this has not been proven by research. Conversely, several studies have shown that adult smokers who take beta carotene supplements are at a greater risk of lung cancer. The best option to reduce the risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking -- see your pharmacist if you are having trouble quitting.

Beta carotene may also increase the risk of cardiovascular problems such as coronary artery disease, and this effect is particularly pronounced in smokers. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking beta carotene if you have heart problems or if you are at risk of them.

There is a growing base of research showing that antioxidant supplements including beta carotene may cause health problems over the long term. You should not consume over the counter beta carotene supplements unless you have been advised to do so by your doctor or pharmacist.

People with eating disorders, kidney problems or liver problems should seek advice from their doctor before taking beta carotene.

If you are taking beta carotene for erythropoietic protoporphyria or another photosensitivity problem, note that you will not be fully protected from the impact of light. You should still avoid excessive and unprotected exposure to sunlight.

Beta carotene has also not effective as a sunscreen. Talk to your pharmacist about the most effective forms of sun protection.

Storage

If you store your medications incorrectly, they may become weaker, or they may become unsafe for you to take. Observe the guidelines below when storing your medication:

Store at room temperature: Your medication can be damaged if you store it near sources of heat or cold, and it is best stored at room temperature. Keep your tablets well away from heater and refrigerators, and if you store the medication in the kitchen, keep it away from the stove, oven and other cooking devices. Although many people store medications in the bathroom, this too is an unsuitable location because of the heat produced by the shower. Do not freeze or refrigerate your tablets, as this can also damage them.

Store in a dry place: You medication may also be damaged if it is exposed to moisture, so choose a dry location in which to store your tablets. This is another reason that the bathroom is not a good location to store medication. Also, if your medicine container came with a ball of cotton wool inside, remove this as it can potentially transfer moisture into the container.

Store away from sunlight: Keep the medication away from windows and ideally in a light-proof container.

Keep away from children: This medication may be harmful if consumed by children, especially in large quantities. Some beta carotene preparations are chewable and flavored, and children may attempt to consume them. Keep your medications out of the reach of children, and away from their line of sight. You should also store them in a child-safe container.

Look for signs of damage: If you notice any changes in color, chips, or cracks in the tablets, or if they are crumbly or stuck together, do not consume them.

Safe disposal: When you have finished your treatment, do not throw any remaining medication into the trash. Instead, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice on the safe disposal of the medication. There may be a “take-back” scheme operating in your area through which you can dispose of the tablets.

Summary

Beta carotene is a natural compound found in many foods. The body can break beta carotene down into vitamin A, and as such beta carotene is often prescribed to people with low levels of vitamin A. It is also prescribed for several other conditions including macular degeneration and erythropoietic protoporphyria.

Beta carotene is considered safe to take when under the direction of a doctor, and harmful side effects are very rare. The most common side effect is carotenodermia -- a harmless condition in which the skin takes on a yellowish tint. Some people taking beta carotene at higher doses may experience loose stools or diarrhea.

To absorb beta carotene most effectively, fats need to be present in the digestive system. Therefore it is recommended that you take your beta carotene with food containing fat.

Resources
Last Reviewed:
December 23, 2017
Last Updated:
December 22, 2017