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What is Scurvy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Scurvy, also known as scorbutus, is a medical condition caused by a lack of vitamin C. Left untreated, scurvy can be fatal, but fortunately this condition is extremely easy to address, as all that is required to eliminate scurvy is an increase of vitamin C intake. Scurvy is relatively rare in the modern era, thanks to widespread knowledge about the need for vitamin C, but it sometimes appears in malnourished individuals, infants, and the elderly.

The history of this disease is ancient. Historically, it was often seen in travelers and mariners, both of whom lacked access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Hippocrates wrote about scurvy, indicating that he was familiar with it, and in the Age of Exploration, scurvy was a very serious problem among sailors and passengers on board ships. In the 1700s, a researcher named James Lind established a link between the consumption of citrus fruits and a decline in scurvy, and the frequency of the disease decreased radically. Lind's discovery also led to the slang term “limey” for “sailor,” referencing the fresh limes consumed to avoid scurvy.

Early signs of scurvy include fatigue and joint pain. If the condition is allowed to progress, a distinctive rash will develop on the legs, the mucus membranes will start to bleed, former fracture sites may come apart, and the patient will experience severe muscle weakness. The lack of vitamin C allows the connective tissues of the body to essentially pull apart, allowing blood to leak freely through the blood vessels, and causing long-term damage to the muscles if the condition is not caught early.

Around seven to 10 milligrams of vitamin C a day will prevent scurvy, which means that a single orange contains over four times the necessary vitamin C. Treatment for vitamin C deficiency usually involves a very high intake of vitamin C, accompanied with fresh fruits and vegetables to address the deficiencies which often accompany scurvy. Vitamin C can also be difficult to absorb when served on its own, so combining it with foods and distributing the dosage across several meals ensures that the body gets a chance to absorb as much as possible.

Infants are sometimes at risk for scurvy if they are fed formula, because pasteurized milk lacks vitamin C. Elderly people may also develop scurvy due to dietary deficiencies; “widower's scurvy,” for example, appears in old men who are not capable of cooking for themselves. People with anorexia and other eating disorders may develop scurvy as well, in addition to a host of other problems related to the inevitable dietary insufficiencies which accompany eating disorders.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By naturesgurl3 — On Aug 03, 2010

Did you know it takes four to eight months for scurvy symptoms to appear in a person?

I bet that really threw a lot of people off, trying to figure out what disease they caught in the middle of the ocean!

By gregg1956 — On Aug 03, 2010

Huh -- I had only heard of scurvy associated with sailors, I didn't know it showed up in widowers too.

Although that certainly makes sense.

I would imagine that the symptoms of scurvy in widowed or divorced men could also be mistaken for the signs of aging, at least at first -- I bet that makes it even more dangerous.

By FirstViolin — On Aug 03, 2010

One of the diseases often connected with scurvy was rickets.

It often shows up as a softening of the bones, which leads to bone pain and tenderness -- hence its easy association with scurvy.

It can also cause deformities and tooth problems.

Since both rickets and scurvy are caused by vitamin and mineral deficiency (rickets is caused by a lack of vitamin D and calcium) the two often come and go at the same time.

An increased intake of vitamin D will cure rickets, just like taking more vitamin C will get rid of scurvy.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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