Scurvy is a condition that results from a vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy symptoms and signs can include anemia, exhaustion, spontaneous bleeding, limb pain, swelling, and sometimes ulceration of the gums and loss of teeth.

Scurvy has been known since ancient Greek and Egyptian times.

For example, some people may associate it with sailors in the 16th to 19th centuries who became ill with scurvy during long sea voyages when it was hard to get a steady supply of fresh produce. Many died from the effects.

It also occurred during the Irish potato famine in 1845 and the American Civil War. The most recent documented outbreak was in Afghanistan in 2002, following war and drought.

Modern cases of scurvy are rare in the United States or Europe due to the wider availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. However, it can still occur in economically exploited regions and some low or middle-income countries.

Here are some key points about scurvy. More detail is in the main article.

  • Symptoms of scurvy result from severe vitamin C deficiency.
  • They include bleeding sores, tooth loss, anemia, and a reduced rate of healing for injuries.
  • It can be fatal if left untreated.
  • Scurvy is treatable with oral or intravenous vitamin C supplements.
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Scurvy occurs when there is a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The deficiency leads to symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems.

This is because vitamin C is necessary to make collagen, an important component in connective tissues. Connective tissues are essential for structure and support in the body, including the structure of blood vessels.

A lack of vitamin C will also affect the immune system, iron absorption, cholesterol metabolism, and other functions.

Vitamin C is a necessary nutrient that helps the body absorb iron and produce collagen. If the body does not produce enough collagen, tissues will start to break down.

It is also necessary for synthesizing dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and carnitine, which are required for energy production.

Vitamin C deficiency symptoms can appear after 8-12 weeks. Early signs include a loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and lethargy.

Within 1-3 months, there may be signs of:

  • anemia
  • myalgia, or pain, including bone pain
  • swelling, or edema
  • petechiae, or small red spots resulting from bleeding under the skin
  • corkscrew hairs
  • gum disease and loss of teeth
  • poor wound healing
  • shortness of breath
  • mood changes, and depression

In time, the person will show signs of generalized edema, severe jaundice, destruction of red blood cells, known as hemolysis, sudden and spontaneous bleeding, neuropathy, fever, and convulsions. It can be fatal.

Infants with scurvy will become anxious and irritable. They may experience pain that causes them to assume a frog-leg posture for comfort.

There may also be subperiosteal hemorrhage, a type of bleeding that occurs at the ends of the long bones.

The main cause is insufficient vitamin C or ascorbic acid.

Risk factors

Humans cannot synthesize vitamin C. It needs to come from external food sources, especially fruits and vegetables or fortified foods.

A deficiency may result from:

  • a poor diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables, possibly due to low income or famine
  • illnesses such as anorexia and other mental health issues
  • restrictive diets due to allergies, difficulty orally ingesting foods or other reasons
  • older age
  • excessive consumption of alcohol or use of certain substances

Late or unsuccessful weaning of infants can also lead to scurvy.

Conditions, treatments, or habits that reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, chemotherapy, and smoking, also increase the risk.

Treatment involves administering vitamin C supplements by mouth or by injection.

The recommended dosage for adults is:

Within 24-72 hours, people can expect to see an improvement in fatigue, lethargy, pain, anorexia, and confusion. Bone changes can take a few weeks to resolve.

After 3 months, a complete recovery is possible. Long-term effects are unlikely, except in the case of severe dental damage.

Usually, a doctor will diagnose a person with scurvy based on the symptoms and confirm the diagnosis if the person improves after taking vitamin C supplements.

Taking a blood test to see a person’s level of vitamin C is unreliable because it shows only the current levels as opposed to broader deficits. However, a doctor can order a lab test to check for conditions that can occur as a result such as anemia.

In children, an x-ray can reveal internal damage resulting from childhood scurvy.

A person can prevent scurvy by consuming enough vitamin C, preferably through their regular diet, but sometimes as a supplement.

The United States (U.S.) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) advises the following intake of vitamin C:

  • Up to 6 months: 40 mg, as normally supplied through breastfeeding or chestfeeding.
  • 7 to 12 months: 50 mg
  • 1 to 3 years: 15 mg
  • 4 to 8 years: 25 mg
  • 9 to 13 years: 45 mg
  • 14 to 18 years: 75 mg for males, 65 mg for females
  • 19 years and above: 90 mg for males, 75 mg for females

During pregnancy, people should consume 85 mg of vitamin C, rising to 120 mg while nursing. People who smoke also need 35 mg more vitamin C each day than those who do not.

Food sources

Foods that contain vitamin C include:

  • fruits, such as oranges, lemons, strawberries, blackberries, guava, kiwi fruit, and papaya
  • vegetables, especially tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, and spinach

Other good sources are paprika, liver, and oysters. One medium orange contains 70 mg of vitamin C, and a green bell pepper contains 60 mg.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are the best source of vitamin C. Cooking and storing can cause ascorbic acid to degrade.

Below are answers to a few common questions about scurvy.

What are the 3 symptoms of scurvy?

Scurvy can cause a wide range of symptoms, including swollen or bleeding gums, feelings of weakness and fatigue, and red or blue spots that form on the skin.

Do people still get scurvy?

Vitamin C deficiency is uncommon, with some sources estimating that it affects around 7.1% of people in the U.S. However, severe vitamin C deficiency is rare due to the widespread availability of vitamin C-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

What is scurvy called today?

Scurvy may also be referred to as a severe vitamin C deficiency. However, it’s still also known as scurvy today.

What is scurvy caused by?

Scurvy is caused by an insufficient intake of vitamin C. This may occur if a person is following a very restrictive diet or has a condition that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb vitamin C. It may also be caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

What foods to avoid if you have scurvy?

There are no specific foods that a person needs to avoid if they have scurvy. A doctor or dietitian can provide detailed recommendations about dietary changes that a person should make to increase vitamin C levels and reduce symptoms.

Most people in the U.S. do not have a deficiency in vitamin C, also known as scurvy. However, it still exists in areas of the country or parts of the world with less access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

The symptoms of scurvy include anemia, fatigue, pain in the legs, swelling, and more. The treatment is to consume vitamin C through either diet or supplements.