Scurvy: Causes, Risk, Symptoms and Treatment

a mouth with broken teeth and blooded gums showing how scurvy look like

Brief History of Scurvy

If you’re unfamiliar with scurvy, one thing that might surprise you is the lore surrounding it. Believed to be a disease of the old world,. Scurvy carries with it a rather dramatic medical history—one that haunted explorers, voyagers, and seafarers who had no access to fruits or vegetables during long periods of time at sea. 

It took lives by the millions throughout the centuries. The effects were so nightmarish that it was feared more than any other disease at the time. A popular narrative from historian Stephen Bown is that:

it was responsible for more deaths than any other disease, combat, storm, or shipwreck combined. 

Stephen Bown

Scurvy, and the havoc it wreaked, became the subject of many paintings and illustrations. Classic literature like Moby Dick and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also chronicled the disease. 

However, it was also described to be a devastating disease that ravaged the mind. The author of the book Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, Jonathan Lamb, describes scurvy’s most obvious manifestation as

“the disintegration of the body”—from ulcers and broken bones to damaged arteries and capillaries, and even hallucinations. 

The Disease of Discovery, Jonathan Lamb

And if scores of men weren’t dying on long voyages, then those who survived took a while to nurse themselves back to health. It was nothing short of an ordeal.

But this was back when nutritional deficiency was an unknown concept. Today, we know a simple truth: scurvy is a disease caused by the lack of Vitamin C or ascorbic acid in one’s diet. 

Also checkout:  Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are key to a healthy diet

Why is scurvy rare today?

It sounds fairly simple, then: to avoid scurvy, you only have to make sure to get some Vitamin C in your diet regularly. And because most people these days do, the probability of getting scurvy is rare. However, that doesn’t mean the disease doesn’t exist anymore. According to reports, not only does it crop up every so often in recent medical literature, but it’s also an underreported yet serious disease. 

What causes Scurvy?

So, why does scurvy keep happening? Experts believe that apart from poor diet and malnourishment, additional factors like restrictive diets related to other medical conditions, crash diets, anorexia or other mental health illnesses, smoking, and consumption of alcohol or drugs might put you at risk of scurvy. 

Basically, anything that affects your body’s ability to process nutrients increases the risk. Old age is also a factor

How long does it take to contract scurvy?

The effects of scurvy today are not quite as dramatic as they once were, likely because it rarely progresses and is easier to reverse. According to Medical News Today, the effects of severe Vitamin C deficiency will start to manifest after 8 to 12 weeks. 

Symptoms of Scurvy

The symptoms to look out for are fatigue or irritability, having swollen or bleeding gums, skin that easily bruises, or finding petechiae, or red or blue spots on your skin. If left untreated, it may eventually lead to anemia, myalgia, or pain, including bone pain, edema or swelling, corkscrew hairs, depression or mood swings, and poor wound healing. 

Moreover, this could lead to more severe conditions like jaundice, spontaneous bleeding, neuropathy, and hemolysis or the breakdown of red blood cells.

Who are at Risk?

Eric Churchill of BayState Medical Center, Massachusetts, believes that it could be happening in communities worldwide, with most of these cases being undiagnosed. His study also highlighted that people most at-risk for scurvy are low-income and socially isolated individuals with mental health issues and limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Role of Vitamin C

  • Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for the human body and should be a regular part of our diet. Because it cannot produce the vitamin from other compounds and can’t be stored for too long. 
  • The vitamin works as an essential nutrient in metabolic processes.
  • It forms and strengthens the blood vessels, muscles, cartilage, and collagen.
  • It also functions as an antioxidant, protecting cells against damage from free radicals, which contribute to aging and disease. 
  • Vitamin C also helps to keep the immune system functioning properly.
  • It aids in iron absorption and plays a role in the production of other substances in the human body.

Treatment of Scurvy

It is treated by reintroducing Vitamin C to the diet and administering Vitamin C supplements if necessary. For less severe cases, improvement will start to occur from as early as 24 hours of treatment. For cases with more severe damage, a full recovery is possible in as much as three months.

To prevent scurvy, make sure to consume Vitamin C-rich foods, ideally through a fresh, balanced diet. Since some of the nutritional benefits of Vitamin C can be lost during cooking due to heat. So, it’s preferable to get it from raw sources. 

Also checkout: Safe & Effective Natural Antibiotics – Treat Infections Naturally

Other than citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, some Vitamin C-rich fruits include strawberries, tomatoes, mangoes, kiwi, guava, and papaya. Vegetables such as carrots, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli are also good sources. 

If needed, Vitamin C can also be consumed regularly through supplements. Adults would typically need around 75 to 90 mg of Vitamin C in a day, while smokers and pregnant women need higher doses. Topical Vitamin C can also help reinvigorate your skin. Vitamin C boosts collagen production and protects it from damage, keeping the skin healthy.

Make Vitamin C a Part of Your Routine

The medical history behind scurvy makes it seem like a thing of the past, but severe Vitamin C deficiency can still happen to anyone. Keep this disease at bay with a squeeze of Vitamin C into your everyday routine.  

About the Author

Penelope is a content marketing professional for Garnier, a skincare brand that aims to help women express their natural beauty and offers a natural way to skin so healthy that it glows. She is passionate about skincare and is an advocate of sustainability and natural ingredients. In her free time, she loves to travel, listen to music, spend time with her friends, and discover new skills.

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