What is scurvy?
Scurvy is a disease caused by a significant lack of vitamin C in your diet. The medical definition of scurvy is severe vitamin C (ascorbic acid) deficiency.
Vitamin C deficiency can occur due to a diet low in vitamin C. But a deficiency severe enough to cause scurvy is rare in the U.S. because most people get enough of the nutrient in their diet. The condition is a problem in countries around the world where people are malnourished.
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a very important nutrient for your body. It’s responsible for the development, growth and healing of your skin, bones and connective tissue. In addition, you need vitamin C for your blood vessels to function properly. Vitamin C helps maintain your teeth and gums. It helps your body absorb iron, which it needs to make red blood cells. Vitamin C also helps heal burns and other wounds.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, meaning it protects your cells against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are byproducts of normal cell activity which participate in chemical reactions within cells. Some of these reactions can cause damage over your lifetime.
Who does scurvy affect?
In the U.S., scurvy most commonly affects babies, children and older adults who don’t get enough vitamin C in their diet. Risk factors for developing the condition include:
- Not having access to fresh fruits or vegetables.
- Eating very little due to medical treatments that make you feel sick (such as chemotherapy) or an eating disorder (such as anorexia).
- Smoking, which reduces the amount of vitamin C your body absorbs from food.
- Having a drug or alcohol dependency that affects your diet.
- Having a poor diet during your pregnancy or while breastfeeding (chestfeeding).
- Having a restrictive diet or food allergies.
- Other health conditions such as type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.
How common is scurvy?
The rates of vitamin C deficiency around the world vary. In the U.S., 7.1% of people may develop a deficiency. In north India, the rate is 73.9%. However, severe deficiency (scurvy) is rare.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of scurvy?
Scurvy symptoms may start to develop after a few months of not getting enough vitamin C in your diet. The first symptoms may include general weakness, fatigue, irritability and joint pain.
If left untreated, more severe symptoms may start to develop. These may include:
- Swollen, bleeding gums that may become purple and spongy.
- Loosened teeth that may fall out.
- Bleeding under your skin (skin hemorrhages). You may develop a “scurvy rash” that shows up as red or blue spots on your skin.
- Easily bruised skin.
- Rough, scaly skin.
- Swollen legs.
- Opening of previously healed wounds and new wounds that don’t heal.
- Dry, brittle hair that coils like a corkscrew.
In babies and children, symptoms of scurvy may include:
- Pain when they move.
- No appetite.
- Failure to gain weight.
What causes scurvy?
A severe lack of vitamin C in your diet for at least three months can cause scurvy. Reasons for this deficiency include not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, cooking destroys some of the vitamin C found in food.
Certain conditions increase your body’s vitamin C requirement. You need more vitamin C and risk deficiency if you don’t get enough while experiencing the following conditions:
- Breastfeeding (chestfeeding).
- Disorders that cause high fevers.
- Overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
- Chronic diarrhea.
- Recent surgery.
- Tobacco usage.
Is scurvy contagious?
No, scurvy isn’t contagious. You can only get scurvy by having a severe vitamin C deficiency.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is scurvy diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can diagnose scurvy based on your symptoms. They’ll perform a physical examination and evaluate you based on certain risk factors for the condition.
What tests will be done to diagnose scurvy?
Your healthcare provider may request a blood test to measure the amount of vitamin C in your blood. In addition, they may perform a test called a dermoscopy. With this procedure, they’ll take a sample of your affected skin or hair (biopsy) and examine it under a microscope.
Management and Treatment
How is scurvy treated?
Scurvy treatment is essential to avoid further complications. The condition is easily treatable by consuming more vitamin C. You should try to maintain a nutritious diet that includes one to two times your daily recommended amount of vitamin C. You can do so by adding fresh fruits and vegetables to every meal.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend taking a vitamin C supplement until you feel better. Children with scurvy can take a supplement of up to 300 milligrams (mg) daily. Adults can take between 500 mg and 1000 mg.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
Most people feel better within 48 hours of treatment. You should be able to make a full recovery within two weeks. Some symptoms may take longer to fully clear up. Depending on the cause of your condition, your provider may refer you to a specialist for further treatment.
How can I prevent scurvy?
You can prevent scurvy by getting the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C in your diet. The best sources of the nutrient are fresh fruits and vegetables. Good sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits.
- Sweet peppers.
Speak to your healthcare provider before taking a vitamin C dietary supplement.
How much vitamin C do I need?
The amount of vitamin C you need every day depends on your age and other factors. The average daily recommended amounts of vitamin C are:
|Age/Life Stage||Recommended Daily Amount|
|Birth to age 6 months||40 mg|
|Infants ages 7 to 12 months||50 mg|
|Children ages 1 to 3 years||15 mg|
|Children ages 4 to 8 years||25 mg|
|Children ages 9 to 13 years||45 mg|
|Teenagers assigned male at birth (14 to 18 years old)||75 mg|
|Teenagers assigned female at birth (14 to 18 years old)||65 mg|
|Adults assigned male at birth (ages 19 years and up)||90 mg|
|Adults assigned female at birth (ages 19 years and up)||75 mg|
|Pregnant teenagers||80 mg|
|Pregnant adults||85 mg|
|Breastfeeding (chestfeeding) teenagers||115 mg|
|Breastfeeding (chestfeeding) adults||120 mg|
If you smoke, you should add 35 milligrams to the above values to get your total daily recommended amount.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have scurvy?
With immediate treatment, the symptoms of scurvy should start to pass within 24 to 48 hours. Some symptoms may take longer to go away. Dental and gum issues as well as corkscrew hairs may take weeks to months to disappear. Severe gum disease may cause permanent damage.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Scurvy is a disease caused by an extreme vitamin C deficiency. While a diet low in vitamin C can cause a deficiency, the condition usually doesn’t reach the level of scurvy. To avoid any risk, make sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables with your diet. Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits are great choices, but you can also get plenty of this nutrient through potatoes, tomatoes and even strawberries. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of scurvy, see your healthcare provider right away.
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