Scurvy: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors and Early Warning Signs

Scurvy is a severe form of vitamin C deficiency. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an essential dietary nutrient that plays a role in the development and functioning of several bodily structures and processes.

Such bodily functioning includes:

  • The proper formation of collagen. Collagen is the protein that helps give the body’s connective tissues structure and stability
  • cholesterol and protein metabolism
  • iron absorption
  • antioxidant action
  • wound healing, and
  • creation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and epinephrine

Scurvy has been known since ancient Greek times, and it is often associated with sailors in the 15th to 18th centuries when long sea trips made it hard to get a steady supply of fresh produce. Many sailors died from the effects.

Recent cases of scurvy are rare, especially in places where enriched pieces of bread and cereals are available, but it can still affect people who do not consume enough vitamins C, but the most recent documented outbreak was in Afghanistan in 2002, following war and drought.

As already stated, scurvy happens when there is a lack of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, which usually leads to symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems.

Vitamin C is needed for making collagen, which is an important component in connective tissues. Connective tissues are essential for structure and support in the body.

A lack of vitamin C will affect the immune system, absorption of iron, metabolism of cholesterol and similar functions.

Scurvy is rare in the United States and is known by the following alternative names: Vitamin C deficiency or Scorbutus

Symptoms of Scurvy

Vitamin C plays many different roles in the body, and its deficiency causes widespread symptoms.

Naturally, signs of scurvy begin after four weeks of severe, continual vitamin C deficiency. However, it can take three months or more for symptoms to develop.

Early Warning Signs

  • weakness
  • aching legs
  • low-grade fever
  • unexplained exhaustion
  • reduced appetite
  • irritability

Symptoms After One To Three Months

  • anemia,(the blood lacks enough red blood cells or hemoglobin)
  • gingivitis, (red, soft, and tender gums that bleed easily)
  • skin hemorrhages, (bleeding under the skin)
  • bruise-like raised bumps at hair follicles, with central hairs that appear twisted, and break easily
  • large areas of reddish-blue to black bruising, often on the legs
  • tooth decay
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • tender, swollen joints
  • eye dryness, and irritation,
  • hemorrhaging in the whites of the eyes (conjunctiva) or optic nerve
  • reduced wound healing
  • reduced immune health
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
  • a headache
  • light sensitivity
  • blurred vision
  • mood swings, often irritability and depression

If left untreated, scurvy can cause life-threatening conditions.


  • The main cause of scurvy is an insufficient intake of vitamin C, (ascorbic acid).

Risk Factors

Humans cannot synthesize vitamin C, as it needs to come from external sources, especially fruits and vegetables, or fortified foods.

A deficiency may result from:

  • a poor diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables
  • illnesses such as anorexia and other mental health issues
  • restrictive diets, due to allergies, or other reasons
  • older age
  • excessive consumption of alcohol
  • use of illegal drugs
  • Late or unsuccessful weaning of infants
  • Conditions, treatments, or lifestyles that reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, such as Crohn’s disease, chemotherapy, and smoking respectively.

Severe Complications

Symptoms and complications associated with long-term, untreated scurvy include:

  • Severe jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • generalized pain,
  • tenderness, and swelling
  • hemolysis,( a type of anemia where red blood cells break down)
  • fever
  • tooth decay and loss
  • internal hemorrhaging
  • neuropathy, or numbness and pain usually in the lower limbs and hands
  • convulsions
  • organ failure
  • delirium
  • coma
  • death

Read: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention of Scurvy


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