Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Early symptoms of deficiency include weakness, feeling tired, and sore arms and legs. Without treatment, decreased red blood cells, gum disease, changes to hair, and bleeding from the skin may occur. As scurvy worsens there can be poor wound healing, personality changes, and finally death from infection or bleeding.
It takes at least a month of little to no vitamin C in the diet before symptoms occur. In modern times, scurvy occurs most commonly in people with mental disorders, unusual eating habits, alcoholism, and older people who live alone. Other risk factors include intestinal malabsorption and dialysis. While many animals produce their own vitamin C, humans and a few others do not. Vitamin C is required to make the building blocks for collagen. Diagnosis typically is based on physical signs, X-rays, and improvement after treatment.
Treatment is with vitamin C supplements taken by mouth. Improvement often begins in a few days with complete recovery in a few weeks. Sources of vitamin C in the diet include citrus fruit and a number of vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes. Cooking often decreases vitamin C in foods.
Scurvy currently is rare. It occurs more often in the developing world in association with malnutrition. Rates among refugees are reported at 5 to 45 percent. Scurvy was described as early as the time of ancient Egypt. It was a limiting factor in long-distance sea travel, often killing large numbers of people. During the Age of Sail, it was assumed that 50 percent of the sailors would die of scurvy on a given trip. A Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, James Lind, is generally credited with proving that scurvy can be successfully treated with citrus fruit in 1753. Nonetheless, it would be 1795 before health reformers such as Gilbert Blane persuaded the British Royal Navy to routinely give lemon juice to its sailors.
Scurvy, formerly associated primarily with long sea voyages and polar expeditions, is still common in areas where drought has destroyed fruit and vegetable crops. A decline in the habit of breast-feeding infants has also led to an increased susceptibility to scurvy.
Daily consumption of vitamin C reduces the duration and severity of cold symptoms and cold sores in those with recurrent outbreaks. It is therefore likely that a deficiency of vitamin C increases the risk of colds and cold sores. Long term supplementation (10 years or more) also reduces the risk of cataracts.