Scurvy

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Scurvy is a condition caused by a vitamin C (ascorbic acid) deficiency in the diet.

A lack of vitamin C interferes with collagen synthesis (formation of the body's tissues). If the body cannot produce collagen, tissue deteriorates, causing a wide range of symptoms including gum disease, anaemia, muscle pain and joint pain.

Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, green vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fresh milk. It is an essential vitamin that is needed by the body to perform important functions including:

  • healing wounds,
  • absorbing iron, and
  • maintaining healthy bones, teeth, and tissue.

Scurvy was a common problem for sailors on long voyages during the eighteenth century because their diet lacked fresh fruit and vegetables.

Risk groups for vitamin C deficiency

Today, scurvy is much less common because we have more fruit and vegetables in our diet. However, vitamin C deficiency can still be a problem for certain groups of people including:

  • elderly people who do not eat vegetables,
  • infants (typically 6-12 months of age) who have a diet that does not contain citrus fruits or vegetables, and
  • adults who have poor diets that lack vitamin C.
Deficiency
If you have a deficiency, it means you are lacking in a particular substance needed by the body.

Vitamin C is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables including:

  • oranges,
  • lemons,
  • limes,
  • grapefruits,
  • blackcurrants, 
  • kiwi fruits,
  • tomatoes, 
  • broccoli,
  • asparagus,
  • green peppers,
  • cabbage,
  • sprouts, and
  • sweet potatoes.

It is also found in fresh milk.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

The symptoms of scurvy usually appear after one to three months of a deficiency in vitamin C (ascorbic acid). How quickly symptoms develop will depend on how much vitamin C is stored in the body.

The early symptoms of scurvy include:

  • malaise (a feeling of discomfort and being generally unwell),
  • lethargy (feeling tired and lacking in energy),
  • myalgia (muscle pain), and
  • arthralgia (joint pain).

Other symptoms of scurvy include:

  • skin changes and bruising easily,
  • anaemia (a condition that is caused by a reduced number of red blood cells),
  • muscles and joint pain caused by haemorrhaging (bleeding),
  • a rash of tiny bleeding spots around the hair follicles,
  • swollen, spongy and bleeding gums (gum disease),
  • loosening of teeth, and
  • wounds healing slowly and poorly.

In the later stages of scurvy, symptoms can include:

  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes),
  • generalised oedema (fluid retention around the body),
  • oliguria (the production of an abnormally small amount of urine),
  • neuropathy (damage to the nervous system),
  • high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F) or above, and
  • convulsions (seizures).

Symptoms of scurvy in children

In children, the symptoms of scurvy can include:

  • irritability,
  • painful legs,
  • anaemia, and
  • haemorrhaging (bleeding), particularly into the end of long bones.

Glossary

Tissue
Body tissue is made up of groups of cells that perform a specific job, such as protecting the body against infection, storing fat or producing movement.  
Pain
Pain is an unpleasant physical or emotional feeling that your body produces as a warning sign that it has been damaged.
Nausea
Nausea is when you feel like you are going to be sick.
Joints
Joints are the connection point between two bones that allow movement.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in the diet so it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day).

Useful links

 

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

As scurvy has a wide range of symptoms, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose it based on the symptoms alone.

Blood test

A blood test is the most reliable way of diagnosing scurvy. A blood sample will be taken from a vein, usually in your arm, and tested to check the levels of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your white blood cells.

A red blood cell count may also be taken to check whether you have anaemia.

If you have iron deficiency anaemia, it may be caused by haemorrhaging (bleeding).

Vitamin B12 and folate deficiency anaemia may be due to a lack of green vegetables in your diet, such as broccoli, asparagus and sprouts.

See Useful links for more information about iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin B12 and folate deficiency anaemia.

Glossary

Vein
Veins are blood vessels that carry blood from the rest of the body back to the heart.
Blood cells
Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

If you are diagnosed with scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency), your GP will advise you to improve your diet so it includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Initially, it is likely that a daily 250mg dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) will be recommended. Once your vitamin C level has returned to normal, a daily 40mg dose may be recommended to maintain a healthy level of vitamin C in your blood.

The response to treatment for scurvy is usually very quick. Any haemorrhaging (bleeding) should stop within 24 hours of starting treatment, and muscle and bone pain should reduce within a few weeks.

Glossary

Pain
Pain is an unpleasant physical or emotional feeling that your body produces as a warning sign that it has been damaged.
Doses
Dose is a measured quantity of a medicine to be taken at any one time, such as a specified amount of medication.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

The best way to prevent scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency) is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. This will ensure you have an enough vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your body at all times.

Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

Good sources of vitamin C include:

  • oranges,
  • lemons,
  • limes,
  • grapefruits,
  • blackcurrants,
  • kiwi fruits,
  • tomatoes,
  • broccoli,
  • asparagus,
  • cabbage,
  • green peppers,
  • sprouts, and
  • sweet potatoes.

Other good sources of vitamin C include:

  • fresh milk,
  • liver,
  • kidney, and
  • fish.

Eating at least five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day gives you more than enough vitamin C to remain healthy.

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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