Rickets is a condition that affects bone development in children. It causes the bones to become soft and weak, which can lead to bone deformities.
Rickets in adults is known as osteomalacia or soft bones.
The most common cause of rickets is a lack of vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D largely comes from the exposure of the skin to sunlight, but it is also found in some foods such as oily fish and eggs. Vitamin D is essential for a child to form strong and healthy bones.
In rare cases, children can be born with a genetic form of rickets. It can also develop if another condition affects how vitamins and minerals are absorbed by the body.
Read more about the causes of rickets.
Who is affected
Rickets was common in the past, but it mostly disappeared in the Western world during the early twentieth century thanks to the fortification with vitamin D of foods such as margarine and cereal. However, there has been an increase in cases of rickets in the UK in recent years.
The number of rickets cases is still relatively small – less than 900 cases were diagnosed in hospitals in England during 2012 – but studies have shown that a significant number of people in the UK have low levels of vitamin D in their blood.
Any child whose diet does not contain enough vitamin D or calcium can develop rickets, but the condition is more common in children with dark skin (as this means more sunlight is needed to get enough vitamin D), children born prematurely, and children taking medication that interferes with vitamin D.
How to prevent rickets
Rickets can easily be prevented by eating a diet that includes vitamin D and calcium, as well as spending some time in sunlight.
The hands and face only need to be exposed to the sunlight for about 15 minutes a few times a week during spring and summer to provide you with enough vitamin D.
In some cases, vitamin D supplements may be recommended to reduce the risk of rickets.
Read more about preventing rickets, including information on good sources of vitamin D and calcium.
Signs and symptoms of rickets
Rickets can lead to bone pain, poor growth and deformities of the skeleton, such as bowed legs, curvature of the spine and thickening of the ankles, wrists and knees.
Children with rickets are also more likely to fracture their bones.
Read more about the symptoms of rickets.
When to seek medical advice
If your child has any symptoms of rickets, take them to your GP for a check-up.
Your GP will usually carry out a physical examination to check for any obvious problems. They may also discuss your child’s medical history, diet, family history and any medication they are taking.
A blood test to measure calcium, phosphorous and vitamin D levels can usually confirm a diagnosis of rickets, although your child may also have some X-rays or possibly a bone density scan (DEXA scan). This is a special type of X-ray that measures the calcium content in the bones.
How rickets is treated
Rickets can be successfully treated in most children by ensuring they eat foods containing calcium and vitamin D or take vitamin supplements.
If your child has problems absorbing vitamins and minerals, they may need a higher supplement dose or a yearly vitamin D injection.
Read more about treating rickets.
Rickets can cause bone deformities such as bowed legs
How to get all the nutrients you need, and safety advice about supplements
Page last reviewed: 19/12/2013
Next review due: 19/12/2015