Scurvy: Symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention

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.

Scurvy has been known since ancient Greek and Egyptian times. It 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.

It 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.

Fast facts about scurvy:

Here are some key points about scurvy. More detail is in the main article.

Symptoms of scurvy result from severe vitamin C deficiency.

They include bleeding sores, tooth loss, anemia, and a reduced rate of healing for injuries.

It can be fatal if left untreated.

Scurvy is treatable with oral or intravenous vitamin C supplements.

What is scurvy?

Scurvy happens when there is a lack of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid. The deficiency leads to symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems.

This is because vitamin C is needed for making collagen, an important component in connective tissues. Connective tissues are essential for structure and support in the body, including the structure of blood vessels.

A lack of vitamin C will also affect the immune system, absorption of iron, metabolism of cholesterol and other functions.

Scurvy teeth
One of the more notable symptoms of scurvy is the loss of and damage to teeth

Vitamin C is a necessary nutrient that helps the body absorb iron and produce collagen.

If the body does not produce enough collagen, tissues will start to break down.

It is also needed for synthesizing dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and carnitine, needed for energy production.

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.

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Causes

The main cause is an insufficient intake of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid.

Risk factors

Scurvy oranges
Not getting enough vitamin C is a cause of scurvy. To prevent this, get a healthy amount of vitamin C from sources such as oranges and fresh fruit.

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