Scurvy is a rare condition that can develop if you don't have enough vitamin C in your diet.
Vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) is vital for the body as it is needed to make collagen. Collagen is a type of protein found in many different types of tissue, such as skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage (which covers the surface of joints).
Without vitamin C, collagen can't be replaced and the different types of tissue break down, leading to symptoms of scurvy, including:
Read more about the symptoms of scurvy.
Unlike some other types of vitamins, the human body is unable to make vitamin C. Therefore, all the vitamin C that the body needs has to come from a person’s diet.
The best way to prevent scurvy is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Read more about preventing scurvy.
People tend to think that scurvy is a disease of the past because our diet and standard of living has improved over the years.
However, although rare, vitamin C deficiency can still be a problem for certain groups of people, including:
Read more about the causes of scurvy.
Your doctor can usually diagnose scurvy by examining your symptoms and asking about your diet. They may also carry out a blood test to measure the level of vitamin C in your blood.
Treatment for scurvy is relatively straightforward. It involves taking vitamin C supplements and eating food that's high in vitamin C. This should quickly reverse the harmful symptoms of scurvy.
The fact that a person has scurvy in the first place is usually a sign that they're vulnerable or living a chaotic lifestyle. Therefore, referral to a dietician, social worker or mental healthcare professional may be required to prevent further episodes of scurvy or other problems linked to malnutrition.
Read more about treating scurvy.
The symptoms of scurvy usually begin three months after a person stops getting enough vitamin C in their diet.
In adults, the initial symptoms of scurvy include:
These spots develop where individual hairs grow out of the skin (hair follicles), and they often occur on the shins. Hairs in affected areas usually twist around like corkscrews and break away easily. Without treatment, the spots can grow and merge to create large dark patches on your skin.
Other symptoms then follow, including:
In infants, the initial symptoms of scurvy include:
As the condition progresses, additional symptoms include:
Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C in your diet.
Without enough vitamin C, your body can't produce new collagen, which is a type of protein found in many different types of body tissue, including the skin and bones. Without a new supply of collagen, the body's tissue will begin to break down and deteriorate.
For people living in the developed world, even a relatively unhealthy and imbalanced diet should provide an adequate supply of vitamin C. Therefore, for scurvy to develop there are usually other contributing factors, such as:
However, delayed or unsuccessful weaning of babies and toddlers to solid food can also lead to scurvy if these children are not given the recommended supplementation of vitamins A, C and D from six months of age, or if they are drinking less than 500ml of formula milk.
See [vitamins for children] for more information about this.
Scurvy is treated with vitamin C supplements, which can quickly improve your symptoms.
Some symptoms, such as joint pain, will usually resolve within 48 hours. Most people will make a full recovery within two weeks.
Once your symptoms improve, you should be able to get enough vitamin C by eating a healthy, balanced diet and you will no longer have to take supplements.
See preventing scurvy for more information.
You may also be referred to a health or social care specialist to address the underlying reasons for developing scurvy in the first place. The type of specialist will depend on the underlying cause. For example, you may be referred to a:
The best way to prevent scurvy is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
This will ensure that you have enough vitamin C in your body at all times.
It's recommended that:
For most people, it's very easy to get the daily recommended amount of vitamin C from your diet. For example, eating one large orange, a bowl of strawberries or a single kiwi fruit would provide you with more than enough vitamin C to meet your body's needs.
Consuming more than the amounts of vitamin C outlined above isn't harmful. You would only suffer adverse effects, such as diarrhoea and flatulence, if you were regularly eating more than 1000mg of vitamin C a day, which is the equivalent of eating about 15 oranges.
Fruit and vegetables are some of the best sources of vitamin C, including:
It's better to eat raw fruit and vegetables as vitamin C is easily destroyed during cooking. If you cook vegetables, it is a good idea to steam rather than boil them as vitamin C dissolves in water.
Levels of vitamin C also gradually reduce during storage, so frozen vegetables can have a higher vitamin C content than fresh vegetables that are not eaten soon after purchase.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.