Definition

What is scurvy?

Scurvy is the name for a vitamin C deficiency. It can lead to anemia, debility, exhaustion, spontaneous bleeding, pain in the limbs, and especially the legs, swelling in some parts of the body, and sometimes ulceration of the gums and loss of teeth.

How common is scurvy?

Scurvy has been known since ancient Greek and Egyptian times, and is often associated with sailors in the 15th to 18th centuries, when long sea voyages made it hard to get a steady supply of fresh produce. Many died from the effects.

Scurvy also occurred during the Irish potato famine in 1845 and the American Civil War. The most recent documented outbreak was in Afghanistan in 2002, following war and a drought.

Modern cases of scurvy are rare, especially in places where enriched breads and cereals are available, but it can still affect people who do not consume enough vitamin C. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency can start to appear after 8 to 12 weeks. Early signs include a loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and lethargy.

Within 1 to 3 months, there may be signs of:

  • Anemia
  • Myalgia, or pain, including bone pain
  • Swelling, or edema
  • Petechiae, or small red spots resulting from bleeding under the skin
  • corkscrew hairs
  • Gum disease and loss of teeth
  • Poor wound healing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Mood changes, and depression

In time, the person will show signs of generalized edema, severe jaundice, destruction of red blood cells, known as hemolysis, sudden and spontaneous bleeding, neuropathy, fever, and convulsions. It can be fatal.

Infants with scurvy will become anxious and irritable. They may experience pain that causes them to assume a frog-leg posture for comfort.

There may also be subperiosteal hemorrhage, a type of bleeding that occurs at the ends of the long bones.

Animal studies have shown that vitamin C deficiency in a woman during pregnancy can lead to problems with fetal brain development.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Feel very tired and weak all the time
  • Feel irritable and sad all the time
  • Have severe joint or leg pain
  • Have swollen, bleeding gums – sometimes teeth can fall out
  • Develop red or blue spots on the skin, usually on your shins
  • Have skin that bruises easily

These might be symptoms of scurvy.

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes scurvy?

Humans cannot synthesize vitamin C. It needs to come from external sources, especially fruits and vegetables, or fortified foods. Scurvy is caused by not having enough vitamin C in your diet for at least 3 months.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for scurvy?

Although scurvy is rare, you may be more at risk if you:

  • Are on an unusual or restrictive ‘fad’ diet – with very few or no sources of vitamin C
  • Eat very little food at all – possible reasons include treatments that make you feel very sick all the time (such as chemotherapy) or an eating disorder such as anorexia
  • Have a poor diet and smoke – smoking reduces how much vitamin C your body absorbs from food
  • Have a poor diet and are pregnant or breastfeeding – your body needs more vitamin C at these times

Other groups who may be more at risk of scurvy include:

  • People with a severe digestive condition, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Babies and young children who aren’t getting the recommended amount of vitamins – read about vitamins for children
  • Very elderly people, who may find it harder to cook or maintain a healthy diet
  • People addicted to drugs or alcohol

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is scurvy diagnosed?

A physician will conduct a physical exam, and request lab tests to assess vitamin C levels in the blood.

Imaging tests can reveal internal damage resulting from scurvy.

How is scurvy treated?

Treatment involves administering vitamin C supplements by mouth or by injection.

The recommended dosage is:

  • 1 to 2 grams (g) per day for 2 to 3 days
  • 500 milligrams (mg) for the next 7 days
  • 100 mg for 1 to 3 months

Within 24 hours, patients can expect to see an improvement in fatigue, lethargy, pain, anorexia, and confusion. Bruising, bleeding, and weakness start to resolve within 1 to 2 weeks.

After 3 months, a complete recovery is possible. Long-term effects are unlikely, except in the case of severe dental damage.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage scurvy?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with scurvy:

Scurvy can be prevented by consuming enough vitamin C, preferably in the diet, but sometimes as a supplement.

The best sources of vitamin C are fruit and vegetables.

The best way to get enough vitamins and minerals is to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 13, 2017 | Last Modified: October 13, 2017

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