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What to Know About Scurvy

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 14, 2021

Scurvy may not be a disease you hear much about in the 21st century. Scurvy was once the scourge of sailors and other seafaring people, killing more than two million sailors between the time Columbus crossed the ocean and the introduction of steam engines during the Industrial Revolution. Scurvy accounted for more deaths than storms, battles, shipwrecks, and all other diseases combined. 

But scurvy can still be a problem for those struggling to get enough nutrients — specifically, vitamin C.

What Is Scurvy?

Scurvy is a severe vitamin C deficiency. The human body needs vitamin C to produce collagen (the tissue that connects your muscles and bones and makes up your skin), heal wounds, support your immune system, and help in many other internal processes. 

The first symptoms of scurvy will typically develop after at least three months of extremely low vitamin C levels.

Unlike most other animals, humans can't make vitamin C within their own bodies. We have to get it from the foods that we eat.

What Causes Scurvy?

Vitamin C can be found mainly in fruits and vegetables, but it's also possible to get it from vitamins and supplements. People who don't eat well aren't necessarily at a higher risk for scurvy, especially if they take a vitamin C supplement. Scurvy may develop if you:

  • Don't include fruits and vegetables in your diet for many months
  • Eat little food at all, due to an eating disorder or a treatment that makes eating difficult (such as chemotherapy)
  • Smoke, as it limits your body's ability to absorb vitamin C
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol for a long period of time
  • Have a poor diet while pregnant or breastfeeding (when your body needs extra vitamin C)
  • Have type 1 diabetes and require higher levels of vitamin C

What Are Scurvy Symptoms?

Scurvy is a progressive disease, and the longer it's left untreated, the more symptoms you'll experience. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Lethargy. Lethargy, along with body weakness, can be so debilitating that you're unable to get out of bed. It's usually the first symptom to appear. This led to the common belief that scurvy was actually caused by laziness. 

Body aches. Aches are felt primarily in the joints, but they aren't limited there. It may feel similar to body aches from the flu.

Swelling. Noticeable swelling happens mostly in your arms and legs. 

Bruising. The slightest touch will cause bruising. Internal bleeding will cause your skin to look splotchy.

Oral problems. Your gums turn spongy and porous. Your breath will smell rotten, and your teeth may start to loosen in their sockets.

Old wounds open. There isn't enough collagen left in your body to continue creating scar tissue, so old wounds may start opening. Mucous membranes (which include your lips, mouth, nasal passages, and middle ear) may also bleed. 

If scurvy continues to progress untreated, you will die — most likely from a hemorrhage near your heart or brain.

How Is Scurvy Treated?

Modern treatment of scurvy is quite simple. You'll want to talk to your doctor, but they'll likely recommend adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. They may also suggest adding a vitamin C supplement. Most patients feel better within 48 hours, and are completely cured within two weeks.

Your doctor may also recommend that you see a specialist for treatment, support, or advice, depending on the reason why you developed scurvy in the first place. They may also test for other vitamin deficiencies. 

You'll want to make sure that the underlying cause has been addressed so that you don't experience a relapse.

Can Scurvy Be Prevented?

Scurvy is an easily preventable disease. To avoid developing scurvy, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. Maintain a healthy diet to ensure that your body has all the vitamins and nutrients it needs to prevent nutritional diseases like scurvy. You can also take supplements, but you should talk with your doctor first.

While scurvy may not be as common as it once was, it's still possible to develop it. It's especially a concern if you're getting other medical treatments or have underlying conditions that may affect your ability to get vitamin C from your food or to properly absorb it. 

If you're experiencing any scurvy symptoms, or you're concerned about developing it, talk to your doctor about ways you can prevent a vitamin C deficiency.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center: "Scurvy."

Maxfield, L., Crane, J. StatPearls, "Vitamin C Deficiency," StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

NHS: "Scurvy."

Science History Institute: "The Age of Scurvy."

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