What Is Scurvy?
By Joan Whetzel
Scurvy was once prevalent among those serving long stints aboard ships, like sailors and pirates, as well as soldiers. The one thing they all had in common was a diet consisting of salted, cured, or dried meats, only rarely eating fruits and vegetables. Scurvy has been known to kill large numbers of passengers and crew on extended sea voyages, which curtailed most long-distance sea travel. The cause of scurvy was not well understood until well into the 20th century, so the cures up until that time were unsuccessful. It has also been seen in the elderly and alcoholics.
Scurvy is defined as a state in which the human body suffers a dietary vitamin C deficiency. This deficiency prevents collagen production in the human body. Thankfully, scurvy is no longer a common malady, though it still shows up from time to time, affecting both children and adults with long-term diets that lack sufficient amounts of vitamin C, and occuring mainly in areas of the world that depend on outside food aid.
Cause of Scurvy
Prior to 1932, the cause of scurvy was not known and the disease was not well understood. It was not until 1932 that it was discovered by Scottish Royal Navy surgeon, James Lind, that a vitamin C deficiency was the cause of the disease which led quickly to the treatment for Scurvy. This a deficiency of vitamin C in the body comes from the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet. It takes only 1 to 3 months for the body to exhaust its naturally stored supply of vitamin C, after which the symptoms of scurvy set in. Interestingly, cooking fruits and vegetables decreases their vitamin C content by 20 to 40 percent. It is also known that vitamin C is destroyed by exposure to copper and to air.
Prior to refrigeration, fruits and vegetables spoiled much more quickly than they do today. For sailors, pirates, and anyone on long ship voyages, there were long periods between ports of call, which meant long periods of time before fresh fruits and vegetables could be loaded onboard ship. For soldiers, long stretches in the field, meant long stretches of time before fresh rations could be delivered.
Today, it is known that pasteurization kills vitamin C. This means that any juices treated by pasteurization must have the vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) must be added back after the pasteurization process.
Symptoms of Scurvy
Initial symptoms include malaise and lethargy. As the disease progresses (after about 1 to 2 months), spots start appearing on the skin (mostly on the legs and thighs), the gums become spongy, and bleeding can be seen coming from the mucous membranes, and the patient develops bone pain and shortness of breath.. The person suffering from scurvy will appear pale, will feel depressed, and will become partially immobilized or unable to properly function physically. The advanced stages of scurvy present with open wounds that weep pus, tooth loss, jaundice, fever, peripheral nervous system damage, bloody urine, generalized edema (extreme buildup of serous fluid in the tissue spaces or cavities of the body body), and death. Infants suffering from scurvy will exhibit apprehensive and anxious behaviors, and will become increasingly irritable.
Prevention and Treatment
Consumption of fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C are the best prevention and cure for scurvy, especially when the disease is in its earlier stages. Foods high in vitamin C include:
- black currants
- kiwi fruits
- bell peppers
- oranges and orange juice
- lemons and limes
Vitamin C can also be provided by a variety of nutritional supplements as well as in foods and drinks that use ascorbic acid as a preservative. Vitamin C can also be given to patients through injections.
Scurvy can be cured when properly diagnosed and treated. In fact, the symptoms improve dramatically and resolve themselves within weeks of treatment. Sufficient vitamin C given orally, can spontaneously stop bleeding symptoms within 1 day, quickly decrease bone and muscle pain, heal bleeding gums within 2 to 3 days, and heal bleeding under the skin within 12 days of beginning treatment. Bilirubin levels and anemia return to normal levels within a month.
Crosta, Peter. Medical News Today. What Is Scurvy?