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Scurvy - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Published on Feb 28, 2022 and last reviewed on Dec 23, 2022   -  6 min read


Scurvy is one of the oldest-known nutritional disorders of humankind. Scroll down this article to understand more about scurvy and ways to manage it.


Vitamins are substances that are required by our body to grow and develop normally. Vitamin C is an antioxidant. Scurvy refers to a condition that occurs when you lack vitamin C in your diet. This condition is otherwise known as scorbutus and has been known since ancient Greek and Egyptian times. But modern cases of scurvy are rare. Scurvy leads to general weakness, anemia, gum diseases, and skin hemorrhages (bleeding). It can be prevented by taking a diet that includes vitamin C-rich foods. Scurvy can be fatal if left untreated.

What Is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is typically a water-soluble vitamin that is needed for normal growth and development. It is otherwise known as ascorbic acid and is required for your skin, bones, and connective tissues. It also promotes healing and helps the body absorb iron.

Water-soluble vitamins usually dissolve in water, and the excess amount of vitamins leaves the body through urine. Even though our body keeps a small reserve of these vitamins, we have to take these vitamins through food regularly to prevent deficiency.

The major functions of vitamin C include:

  • It forms a protein that is used to make skin, ligaments, and blood vessels.

  • It helps in wound healing and forms scar tissues.

  • It helps in repairing and maintaining cartilage, bones, and teeth.

  • Vitamin C is a rich antioxidant.

  • It aids in the absorption of iron.

NOTE: Our body cannot make vitamin C on its own, nor does it store vitamin C. Hence it is essential to include required amounts of vitamin C in the daily diet.

What Is Scurvy?

Scurvy is referred to as a severe vitamin C deficiency. This can affect the immune system, absorption of iron, metabolism of cholesterol, and other bodily functions. Studies state that vitamin C deficiency in women during pregnancy can affect the development of the fetal brain.

What Causes Vitamin C Deficiency?

Human bodies cannot synthesize vitamin C, and so it has to come from external sources. Vitamin C deficiency results from a poor diet that lacks fresh fruits and vegetables.

Who Are More Prone to Developing Scurvy?

The major risk factors or people who are prone to develop vitamin C deficiency include:

What Are the Common Symptoms Seen in Vitamin C Deficiency?

Generally, the signs and symptoms are seen at least after 8 weeks to 12 weeks of severe lack of vitamin C. The early signs of vitamin C deficiency include:

  • Fatigue.

  • Weakness.

  • Irritability.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Pain in legs.

  • Low-grade fever.

The signs and symptoms developed one to three months of continual and severe lack of vitamin C intake include:

  • Gingivitis - swollen and bleeding gums.

  • Loose teeth.

  • Tooth decay.

  • Eye dryness and irritation.

  • Blurred vision.

  • Sensitivity to light.

  • Anemia.

  • Rough, dry, scaly skin.

  • Nosebleeds.

  • Skin hemorrhages or bleeding under the skin.

  • Tender and swollen joints.

  • Delayed wound healing.

  • Irritability.

  • Mood swings.

  • Headaches.

  • Gastrointestinal bleeding.

What Are Some of the Severe Complications of Scurvy?

When scurvy is left unnoticed, it can lead to serious complications like:

  • Severe jaundice.

  • Hemolysis - A form of anemia in which the red blood cells break down.

  • Tooth loss.

  • Internal hemorrhages.

  • Numbness or pain in the lower limbs and hands.

  • Convulsions.

  • Delirium (confused thinking and reduced awareness of the surroundings).

  • Organ failure.

  • Coma.

  • Death.

How Is Scurvy Diagnosed?

Scurvy is determined by checking the signs of vitamin C deficiency and by collecting the dietary history. For confirmation, doctors may suggest blood tests to determine the levels of vitamin C in the blood serum. Even imaging tests can reveal any internal damage caused due to scurvy.

How Is Scurvy Treated?

The symptoms of scurvy are severe. However, scurvy is simple to treat. Vitamin C is naturally present in fresh fruits and vegetables. When scurvy is mild, eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day is the simplest way to recover from the condition. Oral vitamin C supplements are also available. If the symptoms persist even after making dietary changes, then you may have to pay a visit to your doctor.

For chronic and severe cases of scurvy, the doctor can examine and suggest high doses of oral vitamin C supplements for several months.

The daily recommended amount of vitamin C depends on the individual’s age, gender, the severity of the condition, and overall health.

In the absence of vitamin C deficiency, the daily recommended amount of vitamin C is,

For Children:

  • 6 months - 40 mg.

  • 7-12 months - 50 mg.

  • 1-3 years - 15 mg.

  • 4-8 years - 25 mg.

  • 9-13 years - 45 mg.

For Teens:

  • 14-18 years (boys) - 75 mg.

  • 14-18 years (girls) - 65 mg.

For Adults:

  • Men - 90 mg.

  • Women - 80 mg.

During Pregnancy:

  • Teens - 80 mg.

  • Women - 85 mg.

During Breastfeeding:

  • Teens - 115 mg.

  • Women - 120 mg.

What Are the Foods That Are Rich in Vitamin C?

All the fruits and vegetables contain some amount of vitamin C. Fruits that are rich in vitamin C are:

  • Citrus fruits like oranges.

  • Grapefruit.

  • Kiwi fruit.

  • Mango.

  • Papaya.

  • Pineapple.

  • Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries.

  • Watermelon.

Vegetables having good sources of vitamin C are:

  • Broccoli.

  • Brussels sprouts.

  • Cauliflower.

  • Green and red peppers.

  • Spinach.

  • Cabbage.

  • Sweet potatoes.

  • Tomatoes.

  • Winter Squash.

The best way to take vitamin C is through raw fruits and vegetables, as cooking vitamin C-rich foods or storing them for an extended period of time can reduce the content of vitamin C in the food. Even exposure to light can reduce the vitamin C content.

How Do I Know if My Condition Has Improved?

In most cases, people begin to recover quickly from the condition after starting the treatment. You can see improvement in symptoms within a few days of treatment. There will be an improvement in tiredness, confusion, pain, headaches, and mood swings. Other severe symptoms may take a few weeks to resolve completely.


Though the symptoms of scurvy are severe, the treatment is relatively simple. Immediately switching to supplements is not the only way to include vitamin C. There are other ways to include vitamin C, such as developing a lifestyle and taking fruits and vegetables that have vitamin C. Reducing the intake of alcohol and tobacco helps the body adapt to vitamin C at its best.

Last reviewed at:
23 Dec 2022  -  6 min read




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