Vitamin C deficiency: Understanding the causes, symptoms and treatment of scurvy

Rainbow-coloured fresh fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C.
Rainbow-coloured fresh fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • Scurvy is the name of the condition caused by a severe deficiency in vitamin C.
  • Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue and dry, fragile hair.
  • Including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet can reverse the symptoms of scurvy within weeks.

Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is one of the most important vitamins for your body. It is essential for the development of your immune system, thus helping to fight infections and diseases, and heal wounds.

The body cannot produce this water-soluble vitamin or store it for long periods. It is therefore vital to incorporate food items rich in vitamin C in your day-to-day diet plans.

It is also important for maintaining healthy skin and bones. Scurvy is a severe lack of vitamin C and is associated with various health problems, including fatigue, joint pain, and anaemia.

Symptoms and health effects of vitamin C deficiency

Scurvy is a disease caused by an extreme lack of Vitamin C. It occurs if the vitamin deficiency persists for more than three months. If left untreated, it can lead to death.

The symptoms of ascorbic acid deficiency include:

  • Poor immunity

Vitamin C is essential for the development and maintenance of a healthy immune system. As such, people who don't have enough of the vitamin are more susceptible to infections and diseases.

  • Easy-to-bruise skin, and dry, splitting hair

Vitamin C is necessary for the formation of collagen, a protein that helps to keep the skin firm. Collagen is also a component of healthy hair.

A deficiency in vitamin C therefore makes the skin easy to bruise and causes dry hair. Body hair may also be corkscrew in shape due to a weakened structure.

  • Slow healing wounds

Vitamin C is required for the proper development of connective tissue, which helps to hold the cells and blood vessels together. A lack of vitamin C can therefore slow down the healing process of wounds.

  • Anaemia

Patients with scurvy often suffer from anaemia because vitamin C is required for the proper absorption of iron from food. As a result, they are unable to produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of the body.

Vitamin C is a vital component in the metabolic process through which the body produces energy. A deficiency can, therefore, lead to fatigue and weakness.

  • Bleeding gums

A lack of vitamin C has been linked with weak, swollen gum tissues which expose blood vessels thereby bleeding easily. In extreme cases, the gums of vitamin c-deficient patients may turn purplish in colour. Left unaddressed, teeth fall off from the weak gum.

  • Joint pains

Joints have lots of tissues made of collagen. Vitamin C deficiency weakens these tissues and affects their structure, causing joint pain. If the pain is accompanied by swelling, it could be just inflammation resulting from damage of the connective tissues, or bleeding. Have your doctor assess you for certainty.

People at risk for scurvy

Except for instances lack of food and malnutrition, vitamin C deficiency is not as common as it used to be. However, there are still some groups of people who are at a higher risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Smokers: Cigarette smoking has been linked with Vitamin C deficiency because tobacco smoke contains free radicals that destroy vitamin C.
  • Elderly people: The elderly are at a higher risk of Vitamin C deficiency because their bodies don't absorb the nutrient as well as they used to. In addition, they are more likely to have chronic diseases that can lead to its deficiency.
  • People with cancer and chronic illnesses: Cancer and chronic illnesses such as kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes can lead to vitamin C deficiency. The illnesses interfere with the body's ability to absorb and use the nutrient.
  • People who consume alcohol: Alcohol abuse has been linked with vitamin C deficiency. Alcohol interferes with the body's ability to absorb and use the nutrient.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: Pregnant and breastfeeding women are at a higher risk of vitamin C deficiency because their bodies need more of the nutrient during this period.

Sources of vitamin C

Oranges, lemons, tangerines, and other citrus fruits are probably the most known sources of vitamin C.

Other fruits such as grapes, strawberries, paw paws and kiwi are also rich in vitamin C. You can also get your ascorbic acid from fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, kales, and broccoli.

Most fresh vegetables and fruits provide vitamin C in sufficient amounts.

Vitamin C supplements are readily available over the counter and under prescription. However, if your regular diet includes fruits and vegetables, you most likely don't need the supplements.

Prevention and treatment of vitamin C deficiency

Vitamin C deficiency is easily preventable and treatable. The best way to prevent it is by including plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet.

Within a short period of time, sometimes just weeks, you will notice a reversal of most of the symptoms.