Scurvy



Scurvy is a disease that results when people do not get enough vita-min C (also called ascorbic acid) in the diet over a period of weeks or months. Some of the effects of scurvy are spongy gums, loose teeth, weakened blood vessels that cause bleeding under the skin, and damage to bones and cartilage, which results in arthritis-like pain.

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Ascorbic acid

What Is Scurvy?

Scurvy was one of the first recognized dietary deficiency diseases. During the sea voyages of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, many sailors suffered from scurvy. The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (ca 1460-1524) lost half his crew to the disease during their voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, and the British admiral Sir Richard Hawkins (1532-1595) lost 10,000 sailors to scurvy. In 1747, the British naval physician James Lind conducted experiments to see which food or liquids might be able to prevent scurvy. He found that lemons and oranges enabled sailors to recover from scurvy. Both of these citrus fruits are rich sources of vitamin C.

What Is the Role of Vitamin C in the Body?

Vitamin C is necessary for strong blood vessels, healthy skin, gums, and connective tissue, formation of red blood cells, wound healing, and the absorption of iron from food.

Have You Ever Heard Anyone Called a "Limey"?

In Treatise of the Scurvy, published in 1753, James Lind wrote about the first example of a research experiment set up as a controlled clinical trial. To study the treatment of scurvy, Lind divided sailors who had it into several groups and then fed each group different liquids and foods. He discovered that the group fed lemons and oranges was able to recover from scurvy.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British navy had its sailors drink a daily portion of lime or lemon juice to prevent scurvy. The American slang term for the English, "limeys," originated from that practice.

What Are the Symptoms of Scurvy?

The main symptom of scurvy is bleeding (hemorrhaging). Bleeding within the skin appears as spots or bruises. Wounds heal slowly. The gums become swollen, and gingivitis (jin-ji-VY-tis), which means inflammation of the gums, usually occurs. Bleeding can take place in the membranes covering the large bones. It can also occur in the membranes of the heart and brain. Bleeding in or around vital organs can be fatal.

A British sailing ship. Visuals Unlimited.
A British sailing ship.
Visuals Unlimited.

Scurvy develops slowly. In the beginning, a person usually feels tired, irritable, and depressed. In the advanced stages of scurvy, laboratory tests show a complete absence of vitamin C in the body.

Who Is at Risk for Scurvy?

Scurvy is less prevalent today than it was in the time of Vasco da Gama and Richard Hawkins, but people who are on diets that lack a diversity of foods may develop scurvy or scurvy-like conditions. Infants who depend solely on processed cow's milk for nutrition and are not given vitamin C supplements are at risk for scurvy. Elderly people, whose diets often lack citrus fruits or vegetables that contain vitamin C, represent another at-risk group. People who follow diets that limit them to very few food choices also may be susceptible to developing scurvy.

How Is Scurvy Treated?

To treat scurvy, people take vitamin C supplements (vitamin pills) and eat foods rich in vitamin C. In addition to citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits, good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, and other fruits and vegetables.

See also
Dietary Deficiencies
Gum Disease

Resources

Books

Mavarra, Tova. Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Slap, Gail B. Teenage Health Care. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Organization

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a search engine at its website that locates information about scurvy and about vitamin C research.
http://www.nih.gov

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