What Is 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.
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). Exhaustion, fainting, diarrhea, and lung and kidney trouble can follow.
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.
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 Black currants
Guava Kiwifruit Papaya
Tomatoes Strawberries Carrots
Bell peppers Broccoli Potatoes
Cabbage Spinach Paprika
We’ve all heard of scurvy and know the disease that causes spotty skin, spongy gums, bleeding and death can be prevented by consuming Vitamin C regularly. What do you do once your stockpile runs out? If you live in a climate that supports citrus, your concern is mild – but what about those of us living in colder climates?
• Native North Americans didn’t suffer from scurvy although their diet consisted largely of wild game and corn. The reason is they regularly consumed pine tree bark and pine needle tea. Pine nuts are not the only useful part of the pine. Fresh green needles, steeped in boiling water for a few minutes make a tea that contains 8 times as much ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) as orange juice. Pine is an astringent, antiseptic and expectorant.
• Native Americans also consumed the soft, white inner bark found under the woody outer layer of bark on the tree. It can be eaten raw, in slices or dried and ground up into a flour.
• The more I learn about the benefits of pine trees, the more I realize how lucky we are here in North America where pine is plentiful in almost every climate zone. Next time I feel a cold coming on I plan on trying a cup of pine tea.