Scurvy is a disease caused by low levels of vitamin C. It was common in the past among long-distance sailors because they didn't eat enough fruit and vegetables. Although rare today, scurvy is still seen in people who don't eat enough fruit and vegetables, infants and elderly patients.
What causes scurvy?
You can develop scurvy if you don’t have enough vitamin C in your diet for at least 3 months. You can’t store vitamin C in your body for long, so you need to take it in regularly. Vitamin C, which is also known as ascorbic acid, is found mainly in fruit and vegetables.
Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, lemons, limes, guavas and kiwi fruit. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Asian greens and tomatoes also have a lot of vitamin C. You can find vitamin C in many other fruits and vegetables. The richest source is the bush food known as the Kakadu plum, salty plum or gubinge.
You are more at risk of getting scurvy if you:
- eat a diet without many fruit and vegetables
- cook your vegetables for long periods, since this destroys vitamin C
- have a health condition that makes it difficult to digest food, like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
- are on a very restrictive diet
- have an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa
- smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, or take drugs
You can also develop scurvy if you have a bad diet and you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Young children can get scurvy too.
You can even develop scurvy if you are overweight. You might consume a lot of calories, but if you don’t eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables you still might not be getting enough vitamin C.
Your body needs vitamin C to work properly. Without enough vitamin C in your body, you can start to feel very ill. The symptoms of scurvy include:
- feeling tired and weak
- aching legs and arms
- swollen and bleeding gums
- red or blue spots on the skin, usually on the shins
- bumps around the hair follicles
- bruising easily
- wounds taking a long time to heal
To diagnose scurvy, your doctor will do an examination and ask questions about diet. They might also arrange a blood test to test for vitamin C.
Eating fruit and vegetables is a good treatment for scurvy. You can start to feel better in one or 2 days after treatment. Many symptoms usually disappear within 2 weeks.
Your doctor might also prescribe vitamin C tablets.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, is the best way to prevent scurvy.
It’s best to steam vegetables rather than boil them. Or, you could eat vegetables raw or in a soup or stew. If you prefer to boil them, do it lightly.
When to seek help
Talk to your doctor if you think your diet is bad or you are showing signs of scurvy. Your doctor might refer you to a nutritionist, or another specialist, to help you improve your diet.
eatforhealth.gov.au has lots of information about eating well.
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Last reviewed: May 2020