Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Scurvy, or vitamin C deficiency, is a severe lack of vitamin C in the body. It’s a rare medical problem in the UK as most people get enough vitamin C in their diet from fruits and vegetables. Read on to find out the symptoms and treatments.

What is scurvy?

Scurvy is a rare condition that’s caused by a severe lack of vitamin C. Vitamins are important for your body to stay healthy, but we can’t make them ourselves. 

Instead, your body needs to get them from things like food or sunlight. Vitamin C is an essential part of our diet, as it’s the vitamin that our body needs to make collagen, which helps keep our blood vessels, skin, bones and organs healthy. 

When we eat fruits and vegetables with vitamin C in them, your body builds up a reserve for when it’s needed. This reserve will last between 4-12 weeks.

Although we’ve known about scurvy for centuries, it became common in the age of seafarers, as sailors would spend many weeks or months out at sea without eating fruits and vegetables. As a result, they’d get vitamin C deficiency. 

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

People with scurvy may have these symptoms:

  • Feeling tired and weak all the time

  • Feeling irritable and sad

  • Easily getting ill

  • Joint or leg pain

  • Swollen and bleeding gums

  • Nosebleeds

There are also some more serious complications if your body isn’t getting enough vitamin C:

  • Sarcopenia – your muscles may lose mass and become weaker

  • Osteopenia – your bones will become weaker and can start breaking more easily

  • Fatty liver disease – scurvy may also increase your risk of liver problems

How common is scurvy?

The number of people with scurvy is very different between European countries and other poorer areas of the world. In the UK it is estimated that 1 in every 20 people has vitamin C deficiency, whereas in countries like India, over a third of the population have this deficiency.

What causes scurvy?

Although the cause of scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency, there are some things that can increase your risk of your vitamin C levels dropping too low. 

These include:

  • Not eating enough fresh fruits or vegetables in your diet

  • Only eating a small amount of food each day – especially if you have an eating disorder or are going through chemotherapy

  • Smoking

  • Dependency on drugs or alcohol

How is scurvy diagnosed?

If you’re worried about scurvy, it’s best to speak to a doctor. To diagnose the condition they will: 

  • Ask you a few questions about your symptoms

  • If needed, they will also look at any rashes or changes in the skin

  • They will then take a blood test to check your vitamin C levels

  • They will also want to look at the levels of some other important vitamins and minerals to make sure they’re also in a healthy range

  • If they’re concerned about any serious cause of your scurvy, they may also include some other tests

How is scurvy treated?

Treating scurvy is very easy. A doctor will recommend that you start eating more fruits and vegetables. Citrus fruits, broccoli, spinach, potatoes and tomatoes are all rich in vitamin C.

You may also need to take vitamin C supplements to help with getting your levels up. Speak to a doctor about taking these supplements if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding to make sure they’re safe for your baby.

If treated properly, your symptoms should get better within 2 days, and will completely disappear in 2 weeks.

When should I seek help?

If you have any of these symptoms, speak to a doctor: 

  • Your skin and eyes turning yellow

  • Fever

  • Bleeding gums

  • Pain or numbness in your legs

How can Livi help?

A Livi doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They’ll make an individual assessment, recommend a treatment or refer you to a specialist if needed.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi