Scurvy Symptoms: The Red Flags

11/23/2021 | 5 min. read

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Although it is relatively rare in the United States, scurvy can lead to significant health problems if left unaddressed. Scurvy symptoms can start fairly vague, so you must be aware of both the red flags.

Healthy Directions has all of the information you need about how to do that.

What Is Scurvy?

Scurvy is a health condition triggered by a significant vitamin C deficiency.

The vitamin C in the body usually exists at a stable level for those who have access to the right foods. Without adequate intake through foods, vitamin C will be depleted from the body after between four and 12 weeks if there is no additional supplementation.

Diagnosis of scurvy involves an evaluation of your symptoms and a simple blood test performed at your medical provider’s office. They will check your serum levels of vitamin C, and scurvy is usually diagnosed with a serum level of 11 micromoles per liter or less.

Vitamin C 101

Because scurvy symptoms are directly tied to intake of vitamin C, there are a few things you need to know about the micronutrient.

Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid. It is an essential nutrient that we need to function, and the body can not naturally manufacture it. That means we must consume enough vitamin C through the diet.

Specifically, vitamin C is part of the development and proper functioning of several different body processes and systems. These include:

  • The formation of collagen, the protein that makes up much of the body’s connective tissue
  • The metabolism of cholesterol and protein
  • Iron absorption
  • Functioning as an antioxidant
  • Wound healing
  • Creating essential neurotransmitters, including dopamine and epinephrine

As you can see, vitamin C is required for the body to work the way it should. When you don’t get enough vitamin C, the body can suffer serious consequences.

What Are The Symptoms Of Scurvy?

Scurvy symptoms are usually divided into early and more advanced stages of the disease process.

However, a few scurvy symptoms are particular to the disease. They can lead to a quicker diagnosis — tooth and gums decay, pinpoint bruising and bleeding around the hair follicles, and bruising that takes longer to heal than usual.

Before it gets to that point, though, you’ll start to see early scurvy symptoms. These include aching limbs (especially the legs), irritability, a low-grade fever, fatigue, poor wound healing, and general weakness.

Because they are so similar to the early signs of many other diseases, people often overlook scurvy as a potential cause. These issues start to appear after around four weeks of severe, continuing deficiency of vitamin C.

Unfortunately, if scurvy can progress into its more advanced stages, those affected will show increasingly severe symptoms.

These symptoms include gingivitis, skin hemorrhages, loss of appetite, petechiae, chest pain, tooth decay, eye dryness, and anemia (leading to bruising and bleeding issues). If vitamin C deficiency goes on for three months or longer, you’ll be more likely to see these symptoms.

Scurvy symptoms may even become life-threatening if left untreated long-term. Severe jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), tooth loss, organ failure, internal hemorrhaging, coma, and even death can result.

The good news is that, once the vitamin C deficiency is remedied, there is often no permanent damage. The exception to this is with severe scurvy-related dental disease or tooth decay.

What Are The Risk Factors of Developing Scurvy?

Scurvy is a far more common issue in underdeveloped countries with as much access to fresh or fortified foods. However, certain medical conditions or underlying health problems may increase the risk of developing severe vitamin C deficiency in certain situations.

These medical conditions include:

  • Daily alcohol consumption
  • Neurological conditions
  • Kidney failure or dialysis
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Smoking

In addition, the very young or the very old, those following restrictive diets, or people with a very low income have a higher risk of scurvy.

What Can You Do About Scurvy?

The best defense against scurvy is prevention.

The Recommended Daily Allowance, set by the guidance of multiple healthcare agencies, is between 75 and 90 mg a day.

However, this is just the minimum amount necessary to keep you healthy and to ward off scurvy. Taking vitamin C supplements while also focusing on eating foods rich in vitamin C can help you meet your daily requirement and stay healthy.

Luckily, there are plenty of natural sources of vitamin C. When you follow a healthy diet and supplement as needed, you are at little to no risk of developing scurvy.

Here are just a few of the many foods you can eat to give your body the vitamin C it needs to stay healthy:

  • Sweet peppers
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Limes, lemons, oranges, and other citrus fruits
  • Papayas and guava
  • Dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach)
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • Cauliflower
  • Potatoes
  • Green peas
  • Tomatoes

Keep in mind that vitamin C naturally dissolves in water. That means extensive cooking and prolonged storage or canning can significantly lower the vitamin C content. It’s best to eat these foods raw, if possible, to get the most vitamin C possible.

How To Recover From Scurvy?

If you develop scurvy, recovery involves getting your body’s vitamin C serum back to normal levels. Most scurvy symptoms resolve in just a day or two, including confusion, head and neck tension, and mood swings. However, other more severe symptoms, like weakness, bruising, jaundice, and bleeding, may take weeks to go away completely.

To Summarize

While scurvy is rare in the United States, an awareness of the symptoms is helpful. Prevention of scurvy includes appropriate supplementation, and following a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C. Still, certain risk factors and disorders may increase your risk regardless. The experts at Healthy Directions want you to have all the information you need to keep your body functioning as optimally as possible. We’re here to answer any questions you may have and are happy to walk with you on your path toward better health.

Sources:

Scurvy | Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD) – an NCATS Program | NIH

Vitamin C - Health Professional Fact Sheet | NIH

Vitamin C Deficiency- StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf

Healthy Directions Staff Editor