Scurvy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is scurvy?

Scurvy is a disease that affects the blood vessels, skin, and the body’s healing process, resulting in anemia, hemorrhaging of the skin, and gum disease (gingivitis). Scurvy occurs when your diet is deficient in vitamin C. Scurvy is uncommon in the United States, and those most at risk are older adults and alcoholics suffering from malnutrition.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning the body neither produces nor stores the vitamin. To maintain good health, vitamin C must be replenished frequently. If your diet is lacking in fruits and vegetables, you may be at risk of an inadequate level of vitamin C. Conditions that cause malnutrition may be associated with scurvy.

You may find that the signs and symptoms of scurvy are constant or occur only periodically. The types of symptoms associated with scurvy vary among individuals. Some people with scurvy have only mild symptoms, such as fatigue, while others may develop severe anemia and recurrent infections.

Fortunately, scurvy can be readily and effectively treated with nutritional supplements to resolve deficiencies in vitamin C. Changes in your lifestyle can also reduce your risk of developing scurvy, include limiting alcohol intake, eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, not smoking, and always taking all medications and supplements as prescribed.

In some cases, if left untreated, scurvy can lead to severe vitamin-deficiency anemia that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy, generalized swelling, muscle pain, uncontrollable bleeding, or rapid heart rate (tachycardia).

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for scurvy but mild symptoms worsen, recur, are persistent, or give you any reason for concern.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

Scurvy is a condition resulting from too little vitamin C in the body; it affects the normal function of the nerves, digestive system, and skin. Scurvy may result in a range of symptoms, and these can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of scurvy

You may experience scurvy symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these common symptoms can be severe:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, if left untreated, the pain of scurvy can lead to serious vitamin-deficiency anemia that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Uncontrollable bleeding

What causes scurvy?

Vitamin C, also referred to ascorbic acid, is water soluble, meaning the body does not produce or store the vitamin, so it must be replenished frequently to ensure good health. Scurvy develops as a result of inadequate intake of vitamin C. If your diet is lacking in a variety of fruits and vegetables, you could be at risk of developing scurvy. Poorly balanced and inadequate diets can lead to malnutrition, which is commonly associated with scurvy.

What are the risk factors for scurvy?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing scurvy. Not all people with risk factors will get scurvy. Risk factors for scurvy include:

  • Being bottle fed (infants) with cow’s milk without adequate supplementation
  • Low dietary intake of fruits and vegetables
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking

Reducing your risk of scurvy

There are a number of steps you can take to lower your risk of scurvy including:

  • Abstaining from smoking
  • Ensuring your diet is rich in foods that contain vitamin C, such as, berries, citrus, green peppers, leafy greens, potatoes, and melons
  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from each of the food groups

How is scurvy treated?

If you suspect you may be suffering from scurvy, it is vital that you seek medical attention. To determine whether you have scurvy, your health care professional will ask you questions related to the disease, take a blood sample, and possibly recommend that you undergo diagnostic testing. It is very important to follow your treatment plan for scurvy precisely, and to take all medications as instructed by your doctor.

The treatment approach for scurvy depends in part on its underlying cause but will include restoring your body’s vitamin C levels to normal. This may involve use of vitamin supplements to help more rapidly replenish your body’s vitamin C and restore a healthy balance.

A specific recommendation for your own vitamin C requirements will be provided by your health care professional provided based on your age, gender, and general state of health.

What are the potential complications of scurvy?

If you are diagnosed with scurvy, you can help minimize your risk of serious complications by carefully following the treatment plan you and your health care provider design specifically for you. Complications of scurvy include:

  • Anemia and its consequences, which include shortness of breath and rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Easy bruising

  • Increased incidence of infections

  • Joint pain and discomfort

  • Reduced ability for wound healing

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Scurvy. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000355.htm.
  2. Vitamin C. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002404.htm.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Water-soluble vitamins. In: Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, 6th, Kleinman RE (Ed), American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village 2009. p.485.