Causes of scurvy 

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C in your diet.

If your body doesn't have enough vitamin C, it can't produce new collagen (a protein found in many different types of body tissue, including the skin and bones). Without a new supply of collagen, the body's tissue will begin to break down and deteriorate.

In the developed world, even if someone has a relatively unhealthy and imbalanced diet, it should provide an adequate supply of vitamin C. Therefore, for scurvy to develop, there are usually other contributing factors, such as:

  • alcohol misuse or drug dependency
  • homelessness
  • complex mental health conditions such as severe depression or schizophrenia
  • being elderly and unable to maintain a healthy diet  for example, elderly men who've recently been widowed and have little experience of cooking for themselves can sometimes develop scurvy
  • treatments that cause nausea as a side effect, such as chemotherapy, can sometimes result in a person losing their appetite
  • conditions that affect a person's ability to digest food such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • anorexia nervosa an eating disorder where a person becomes very concerned about gaining weight and tries to control it by eating as little as possible
  • fad diets
  • smoking which can reduce the amount of vitamin C absorbed by the body
  • pregnancy or breastfeeding as the body needs more vitamin C at these times

In the UK, scurvy in children is relatively rare. It usually occurs through a combination of parents being on a low income and knowing little about nutrition. For example, in 2009, a case of scurvy was reported in a child whose diet only consisted of bread and jam.

However, delayed or unsuccessful weaning of babies and toddlers to solid food can also lead to scurvy, if these children aren't given the recommended supplementation of vitamins A, C and D from six months of age, or if they're drinking less than 500ml of formula milk.

See vitamins for children for more information.

Lack of vitamin C

Although scurvy is rare in the UK, research has shown that a significant number of people may have a lack of vitamin C.

However, it's possible to get a good supply of vitamin C by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. The good news is that it doesn't have to cost a lot to get your 5 A DAY.

Read more about how to get your 5 A DAY on a budget.



Page last reviewed: 14/01/2015

Next review due: 01/09/2017