Scurvy

What Is Scurvy? What Causes Scurvy?

Scurvy is a condition where an individual has a vitamin C (ascorbic acid) deficiency. The name scurvy comes from the Latin scorbutus, and humans have known about the disease since ancient Greek and Egyptian times. Scurvy commonly is associated with sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries who navigated long voyages without enough vitamin C and frequently perished from the condition. Modern cases of scurvy are very rare.

Humans are unable to synthesize vitamin C - which is necessary for collagen production and iron absorption - and so they must obtain it from external sources (such as citrus fruits). Therefore, people must consume fruits and vegetables that contain or are fortified with vitamin C in order to avoid the vitamin C deficiency known as scurvy.

Who gets scurvy?

Though scurvy is a very rare disease, it still occurs in some patients - usually elderly people, alcoholics, or those that live on a diet devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables. Similarly, infants or children who are on special or poor diets for any number of economic or social reasons may be prone to scurvy.

What causes scurvy?

The primary cause of scurvy is insufficient intake of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). This may be due to ignorance, famine, anorexia, restrictive diets (due to allergies, food fads, etc.), or difficulty orally ingesting foods. Historically, scurvy was the result of long sea voyages where sailors did not bring along enough foods with vitamin C.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

Scurvy symptoms may begin with appetite loss, poor weight gain, diarrhea, rapid breathing, fever, irritability, tenderness and discomfort in legs, swelling over long bones, bleeding (hemorrhaging), and feelings of paralysis.

As the disease progresses, a scurvy victim may present bleeding of the gums, loosened teeth, petechial hemorrhage of the skin and mucous membranes (a tiny pinpoint red mark), bleeding in the eye, proptopsis of the eyeball (protruding eye), constochondral beading (beading of the cartilage between joints), hyperkeratosis (a skin disorder), corkscrew hair, and sicca syndrome (an automimmune disease affecting connective tissue).

Infants with scurvy will become apprehensive, anxious, and progressively irritable. They often will assume the frog leg posture for comfort when struck with pseudoparalysis. It is common for infants with scurvy to present subperiosteal hemorrhage, a specific bleeding that occurs at the lower ends of the long bones.

How is scurvy diagnosed?

Physicians initially will conduct a physical exam, looking for symptoms described above. Actual vitamin C levels can be obtained by using laboratory tests that analyze serum ascorbic acid levels (or white blood cell ascorbic acid concentration). Sometimes, radiological procedures are ordered for diagnostic purposes and to see what damage scurvy has already done.

How is scurvy treated?

Scurvy is treated by providing the patient with vitamin C, administered either orally or via injection. Orange juice usually functions as an effective dietary remedy, but specific vitamin supplements are also known to be effective.

How can scurvy be prevented?

Scurvy can be prevented by consuming enough vitamin C, either in the diet or as a supplement. Foods that contain vitamin C include:
  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Blackcurrants
  • Guava
  • Kiwifruit
  • Papaya
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Paprika
  • Liver
  • Oysters

 

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