What is scurvy?

Scurvy is a condition caused by prolonged deficiency of vitamin C and is characterized by general weakness, gum disease (gingivitis), anemia and skin problems including bleeding into the skin. Vitamin C is not produced by the body and therefore must come from the diet. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many years ago, scurvy was associated with sailors and pirates as fruit and vegetables would perish during long sea voyages. Scurvy is not as common now, as most people have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or supplements all year round. However, it is still possible to get scurvy if you are malnourished and lack vitamin C.

Anemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body.

Gum disease

A chronic, progressive disease of the gums caused mainly by bacteria and poor oral hygiene. Early stages are generally asymptomatic, with the advanced stages characterized by loss of gum tissue, supporting bone and eventual loss of teeth.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Causes

Scurvy is caused by a severe deficiency in vitamin C and symptoms usually appear after about three months. Vitamin C is not produced by the body and therefore must come from the diet. Severe deficiency in vitamin C can be caused by malnutrition where there are limited fruit and vegetables consumed, or in medical conditions that prevent the absorption of vitamin C.

A lack of vitamin C in the diet can affect many of the body's processes including collagen formation, which is used throughout the body to strengthen skin, blood vessels and bones. Collagen is also important in wound healing. Other processes affected by a lack of vitamin C include decreased iron absorption and the ability to fight infection.

Scurvy causes swollen and reddened gums.Swollen and reddened gums caused by scurvy. 

Collagen

A protein that is the main component of various connective tissues.

Infection

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Iron

An essential mineral required by the body. Iron is part of a protein in the blood called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body.

Malnutrition

A condition in which a person does not receive the right amount of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and proteins.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Risk factors

Some people are more at risk of vitamin C deficiency and therefore developing scurvy. These include:

  • Alcoholics with poor nutrition;
  • Elderly people who may be malnourished;
  • People who smoke, as smoking lowers vitamin C uptake;
  • People on fad diets that may restrict certain foods;
  • People with malabsorption disorders and inflammatory bowel disease;
  • Dialysis patients due to unwanted vitamin C clearance, and;
  • Other malnourished people.

Dialysis

A mechanical blood-filtering treatment that mimics the function of your kidneys, which normally work as your body’s natural filtration system to remove the body's waste products from the blood.

Inflammatory bowel disease

A group of conditions characterized by chronic, episodic inflammation of the bowels, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Malabsorption

A problem of the digestive system that prevents the efficient intake of nutrients from food.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of scurvy occur after around three months of severe vitamin C deficiency and can include:

  • Weakness and fatigue;
  • Skin problems including papules, which are small bluish/reddish spots of internal bleeding that surround hair follicles. Papules may join together to cover large areas of skin, termed purpura, that look like large bruises;
  • Broken hair;
  • Anemia due to blood loss;
  • Swollen and reddened gums with loose teeth;
  • Aching limbs, swollen and tender joints;
  • Eye problems including dryness, irritation and light intolerance, and;
  • Fever, diarrhea and vomiting, particularly in children.

Severe cases can lead to heart and lung problems involving breathing difficulties, low blood pressure and death.

Papules in the skin caused by scurvy. 

Anemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body.

Blood pressure

The pressure the blood places on the walls of the arteries, largely mirroring the contraction of the heart, and consisting of two readings. The higher reading is systolic blood pressure, when the heart contracts, and the lower is diastolic blood pressure, when the heart is relaxed.

Fatigue

A state of exhaustion and weakness.

Joints

A connecting surface or tissue between two bones.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Methods for diagnosis

Your doctor can make a diagnosis of scurvy after evaluating your dietary habits and performing a blood test to check vitamin C levels. An X-ray of sore joints or bones to check for bone thinning, which is commonly seen in people with scurvy, may also be performed.

Joints

A connecting surface or tissue between two bones.

X-ray

A scan that uses ionizing radiation beams to create an image of the body’s internal structures.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Types of treatment

Scurvy is treated by increasing the amount of vitamin C in your diet. This can be in the form of fruits, particularly citrus fruits including oranges, lemons and limes. Vegetables including spinach, cabbage, capsicum and broccoli are also high in vitamin C.

To aid your treatment, your doctor may suggest that you take vitamin C supplement tablets for a short period. With effective treatment, symptoms including bleeding into the skin and gums will stop within one to two days. Aching limbs and tender joints may take a few weeks to heal.

As part of the treatment process, it is important to manage any underlying conditions that are causing your vitamin C deficiency and scurvy.

Many healthy foods, such as oranges, lemons and cabbage, contain vitamin C.Many fresh foods including fruit and vegetables contain vitamin C.  

Joints

A connecting surface or tissue between two bones.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Potential complications

Complications of scurvy can be serious, including anemia, heart and lung problems, shock and death. Scurvy can also affect bone growth in newborns and children. A deficiency in vitamin C causes growth plates in bones to harden prematurely, leading to the stunting of height.

Iron deficiency may occur in people with scurvy. This is because vitamin C is required for the absorption of iron from your diet. Your iron levels may be measured by a blood test while being tested for scurvy.

Anemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body.

Iron

An essential mineral required by the body. Iron is part of a protein in the blood called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body.

Shock

A life-threatening condition in which the organs and other tissues do not receive adequate blood flow.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Prognosis

Scurvy is a condition caused by a prolonged deficiency in vitamin C, but is easily treated by increasing the amount of vitamin C in your diet. The outlook is positive, with symptoms subsiding within days to weeks with generally no long-lasting effects.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.

Prevention

It is possible to prevent scurvy by having enough vitamin C in the diet. It is best to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, as they not only contain vitamin C, but many other nutrients to keep you healthy. Vitamin C supplements are also available if you are not getting enough from your diet.

Vitamin C

A water-soluble vitamin essential for the formation of connective tissue. It also aids in fighting bacterial infections. Also known as ascorbic acid.