Traditionally seen as an illness of seafarers and soldiers, scurvy can affect adults and children of all ages. Robert Mair reports.

In this article:

  • What is scurvy?
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment

What is scurvy?

Scurvy is the result of poor vitamin C absorption. This can either be because of limited dietary intake or because your body isn’t good at absorbing the vitamin C rich foods and drinks you give it.

Scurvy was a common disease for sailors up till the mid-20th century as early seafaring expeditions were lengthy and had limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

Indeed scurvy was one of the limiting factors for travel by sea for a long time.

In modern western society cases of scurvy are rare. However, individuals relying heavily on time-saving prepared meals or isolated older people without access to a regular supply of fresh fruit and vegetables can be at risk. The pasteurization process destroys vitamin C, so infants fed with ordinary bottled milk may suffer scurvy if the vitamin isn’t sufficiently supplemented from alternative sources. Heat and storage also destroy vitamin C.


The main symptoms of scurvy include:

  • Lethargy
  • Purple-coloured spots on the skin
  • Pale skin
  • Easy bruising
  • Spongy and bleeding gums
  • Tooth loss
  • Jaundice
  • Fever
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Depression
  • Nose bleeds
  • Sunken eyes
  • Bleeding from mucous membranes
  • Opening of previously-healed scars and separation of healed bone-fractures
  • Poor mobility

Symptoms of scurvy appear 1-3 months after vitamin C intake/absorption stops, and are dependent upon the amount of vitamin C the body has stored.

If left untreated scurvy can cause a range of complications – and ultimately death.


Scurvy is usually diagnosed by its symptoms, but a blood test will examine the vitamin C levels in white blood cells to confirm.


The main treatment for scurvy is increasing vitamin C intake. This can come from eating more fruit and vegetables (particularly citrus fruit) and taking daily doses of ascorbic acid supplements.

Once treatment has started, symptoms respond quickly. Bleeding should stop within 24 hours and muscle and joint pain should clear within a week.

Like many diseases caused by a dietary deficiency, scurvy can be prevented by a balanced diet. Good sources of vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Limes
  • Lemons
  • Grapefruits
  • Kiwi fruits
  • Blackcurrants
  • Guava
  • Papaya
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Green peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Paprika