Scurvy

Scurvy is a disease that occurs when people do not get enough vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) in the diet over a period of weeks or months. Some of the effects of scurvy are spongy gums, loose teeth, weakened blood vessels that cause bleeding under the skin, and damage to bones and cartilage, which results in arthritis-like pain.

What Is Scurvy?

Scurvy was one of the first recognized dietary deficiency diseases. During the sea voyages from the 15th through the 18th centuries, many sailors suffered from scurvy. For example, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460–1524) lost half his crew to the disease during a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope; and the British admiral Sir Richard Hawkins (1532–1595) estimated that during his career, 10,000 sailors under his command died of scurvy. One legend maintains that men sailing with Christopher Columbus developed scurvy and asked to be left on an island to die, but when Columbus returned, he found the men healthy. He named the island, which was rich in various kinds of fruit, Curaçao (“cure” in Portuguese).




Recommended Amounts of Vitamin C by Age





Recommended Amounts of Vitamin C by Age
SOURCE: Office of Dietary Supplement, National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin C.” Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-Consumer (accessed July 6, 2016). Table by CenveO Publisher Services. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

What Is the Role of Vitamin C in the Body?

Citrus fruits are rich sources of vitamin C, and vitamin C is necessary for strong blood vessels; healthy skin, gums, and connective tissue; formation of red blood cells; wound healing; and the absorption of iron from food. Scientists first learned about vitamin C in the late 1920s and early 1930s when a Hungarian research team and an American research team independently discovered the vitamin and identified it as ascorbic acid.

What Are the Symptoms of Scurvy?

The main symptom of scurvy is bleeding, or hemorrhaging (HEHmuh-rij-ing). Bleeding within the skin appears as spots or bruises. Bleeding can take place in the membranes covering the large bones and in the membranes of the heart and brain. Bleeding in or around vital organs can be fatal. Other symptoms include:

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A “LIMEY”?

In Treatise of the Scurvy, published in 1753, James Lind (1716–1794) wrote about the first example of a research experiment set up as a controlled clinical trial. To study the treatment of scurvy, Lind divided sailors who had it into several groups and then fed each group different liquids and foods. He discovered that the group fed lemons and oranges was able to recover from scurvy.

By the end of the 18th century, the British navy had its sailors drink a daily portion of lime or lemon juice to prevent scurvy. The American slang term for the English, “Limeys,” originated from that practice.

Scurvy develops slowly. In the beginning, a person usually feels tired, irritable, and depressed. In an individual in the advanced stages of scurvy, laboratory tests show a complete absence of vitamin C in the person's body.

Who Is at Risk of Scurvy?

Scurvy is less prevalent in modern times than it was in the time of Vasco da Gama and Richard Hawkins, but people who are on diets that lack a diversity of foods may develop scurvy or scurvy-like conditions. This statement applies to the following groups:

How Is Scurvy Treated?

A simple blood test that checks for vitamin C levels can confirm whether a person has scurvy. If so, a medical professional will recommend vitamin C supplements (vitamin pills) and a diet that includes foods rich in vitamin C. In addition to citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits, good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, tomatoes, raw spinach, baked potatoes, red and green bell peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe, mangoes, and other fruits and vegetables.

See also Dietary Deficiencies • Malnutrition • Mouth Disorders: Overview

Resources

Books and Articles

Lind, James. Treatise of the Scurvy: In Three Parts, Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes, an Cure, of that Disease, Together with a Critical and Chronological View of What Has Been Published on the Subject. London: Printed for A. Millar, 1753.

Websites

MedlinePlus “Scurvy.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000355.htm (accessed July 6, 2016).

NHS Choices. “Scurvy.” (accessed July 6, 2016).

Organization

Office of Rare Diseases Research. 6701 Democracy Blvd., Suite 1001, Bethesda, MD 20892. Telephone: 301-402-4336. Website: http://www.rarediseases.info.nih.gov (accessed July 6, 2016).

World Health Organization. Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. Telephone: 41 22 791 21 11. Website: http://www.who.int/en/ (accessed July 6, 2016).

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.