What is scurvy?
When you think of scurvy, you may imagine pirates sailing across the open sea. Sailors were prone to scurvy because they were at sea for months without vitamin C-rich fresh fruits and vegetables. But scurvy can affect civilians, too.
Scurvy is a severe vitamin C deficiency. Vitamin C is essential to maintaining connective tissue health. Without it, everything from your skin to your blood vessels can become weaker.
Without treatment, scurvy can cause skin and joint problems, loss of teeth, and heart and lung issues. Luckily, it has become a rare disorder, thanks to a modern diet with plenty of access to food with vitamin C.
Symptoms of scurvy
Because scurvy is so unusual in countries with an adequate food supply, most people aren’t very familiar with scurvy symptoms.
The early signs of scurvy might be mistaken for other health problems. Some early symptoms of scurvy include:
- Persistent irritability
- Severe pain in your arms and legs
- Swollen, bleeding gums
- Unexplained bruising and skin discoloration
When scurvy goes untreated, the disease progresses. Advanced scurvy can cause serious problems, including:
- Bleeding in the joints, causing pain and difficulty walking
- Persistent dry eyes, including stickiness and blurred vision, which can lead to bleeding from the optic nerve or conjunctiva (the mucous membrane that covers the eyeball and inside the eyelid)
- Tooth loss due to gum damage
- Heart and lung problems, such as low blood pressure or shortness of breath, which can lead to shock and death
All of these symptoms are byproducts of the lack of vitamin C, which reduces the amount of collagen in your connective tissues. Collagen is a protein that the body uses to repair and strengthen connective tissues.
Without vitamin C to produce collagen, your connective tissues break down in your skin, bones, blood vessels, tendons, and muscles. This leads to the pain and weakness associated with the disease.
Causes of scurvy
The only cause of scurvy is a severe lack of vitamin C. Humans rely on food or supplements to get enough of this essential vitamin. Your body can’t store vitamin C to use later either, so you need to consume it regularly.
Most people get a sufficient amount of vitamin C in a regular diet of fruits, vegetables, or supplements. Even if you skip eating your vegetables for a meal or two, you won’t be at risk for scurvy. It takes three or more months of getting little or no vitamin C for scurvy to develop.
However, some medical conditions raise your scurvy risk. If you have one of those conditions, it’s important to make sure you are getting the right nutrients so talk to your doctor about your risk and discuss scurvy treatment.
People who are at high risk for scurvy include:
- Smokers: Smoking makes it harder to absorb vitamin C.
- People with alcohol or drug addiction: People with addictions may not eat enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy.
- Anyone restricting their diet: Eating too little in general can result in vitamin deficiencies. People with eating disorders or people who diet may get scurvy. People who lose their appetite due to a medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, may also be at risk.
- People with digestive tract problems like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or colitis: The intestinal damage might reduce vitamin C absorption.
Diagnosis for scurvy
If you think you have scurvy, your doctor can assess your symptoms and risk factors during a general exam.Your doctor may order tests to check the levels of vitamin C in your blood before making a final diagnosis.
Treatments for scurvy
Scurvy treatment is as simple as taking vitamin C. Your doctor can recommend a vitamin C supplement or help you transition to a balanced diet rich in vitamin C.
Most patients notice a difference soon after adding vitamin C back into their diet. Many report feeling better after just 48 hours and a full recovery within two weeks.
You can prevent scurvy by eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Medically Reviewed on 1/21/2021
DermNet NZ: “Scurvy.”
Linus Pauling Institute: “Vitamin C and Skin Health.”
National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Vitamin C Deficiency.”
National Health Service UK: “Scurvy.”
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C.”