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6-minute read

Key facts

  • Scurvy is a health condition that happens when you don’t get enough vitamin C from your diet for at least a few months.
  • It used to happen on long distance ship travel (when it was hard to find fresh fruit and vegetables), but still happens in Australia today.
  • Scurvy can give you tiredness, muscle pain, bruising, bleeding gums and other symptoms.
  • Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, grapefruits, strawberries and kiwi fruit, broccoli, cabbage, capsicum, tomatoes and more.

What is scurvy?

Scurvy is a disease caused by low levels of vitamin C over a period for 2 to 3 months. It was common in the past among long-distance sailors because they didn't have access to fruit and vegetables on long trips. Scurvy is still seen today in people who don't eat enough fruit and vegetables.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

Your body needs vitamin C to work properly and it can only get it from your diet or supplements. The symptoms of scurvy include general symptoms:

  • feeling tired and weak
  • aching legs and arms
  • wounds taking a long time to heal
  • anaemia
  • skin thickening
  • nausea

If you have scurvy, your body can’t make enough collagen. This increases your risk of bleeding, so you may experience:

  • swollen and bleeding gums
  • red or blue spots on the skin, usually on the shins
  • small bruises around your hair follicles
  • bruising easily

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes scurvy?

You can develop scurvy if you don’t have enough vitamin C in your diet for at least 2 to 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, grapefruits, guava, strawberries and kiwi fruit. Vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, capsicum 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
  • smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, or take drugs
  • are from a low socio-economic background
  • cook all your vegetables for a long time, as this reduces the vitamin C
  • have a health condition that makes it difficult to digest food
  • have a poor appetite
  • have a mental health condition

You need more vitamins when you are pregnant or breastfeeding compared to someone who is not. Young children can also get scurvy.

You can even develop scurvy if you live with overweight. You might consume a lot of food, but if you don’t eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables you still might not get enough vitamin C.

When should I see my doctor?

Talk to your doctor if you think your diet doesn’t include enough fruit and vegetables or you have symptoms of scurvy. Your doctor might refer you to a dietitian to help you improve your diet.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is scurvy diagnosed?

To diagnose scurvy, your doctor will as do an examination and ask questions about diet. They might also arrange a blood test to test for vitamin C.

How is scurvy treated?

If you have a diagnosis of scurvy, you will need to replace your vitamin C levels and maintain them. This will usually through vitamin C supplements as well as your diet. You can start to feel better in one or 2 days after treatment. Many symptoms usually disappear within 4 weeks.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Can scurvy be prevented?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, is the best way to prevent scurvy.

It’s best to lightly steam vegetables and make sure that you include raw fruit and vegetables in your meal plan.

Resources and Support

Information about how to eat enough fruit and vegetables in your diet is available from eat for health.

For diet and nutrition health advice visit Dietitians Australia.

To find a dietitian near you, use the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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