Scurvy is caused by a prolonged lack of vitamin C or ascorbic acid. This vitamin is needed for the synthesis of collagen in humans. Collagen is a group of natural proteins that occur in the body. These proteins are necessary for the health and strength of connective animal tissues in mammals.
At one time this illness was readily identified with sailors. This came about as a result of the lack of vitamin C rich foods on board ship. It was difficult to store and "keep" fruits and vegetables for extended voyages. To help prevent the disease, ships began to improvise ways to bring the needed vitamin on board. They began blending lime and orange juices into rum and other types of drinks to preserve the vitamin C it contained.
It usually takes around ten weeks or more of vitamin C deprivation, for scurvy to occur. The symptoms include pain and stiff joints, usually followed by large purple spots on the lower extremities of the body. The gums begin to swell, and extend out over the teeth, which can become loose and start falling out. Old wounds will sometimes reopen and refuse to heal. All of the mucus membranes of the human body are susceptible to scurvy. This means that bloody mucus can begin to "leak" from the nostrils, eyelids, mouth, lips, ears, anus and genital areas. Finally death can occur quite suddenly, if weakened connective tissues give out and allow a major artery wall to burst. The victim can often fall where they stand.
The normal amount of vitamin C required by the human body each day is around 7 mg. It is not hard for people today to consume the amount of the needed vitamin. Vitamin C can be found in numerous food products. They include oranges, kiwis, lemons, black currants, papaya, guava, bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, paprika, and spinach. James Lind, a Scottish Surgeon from the British Royal Navy first discovered that citrus fruits could prevent and cure scurvy during the 1750's. It would be 1932, however before the actual cause of scurvy was known.
There have been high incidents of scurvy occurring on land at different times in history. When fresh foods and vegetables became scarce during droughts, many people would die from the illness. The famous California Gold Rush, is a well known example of an outbreak of scurvy caused by a lack of fresh supplies.
Scurvy can be prevented by eating at least one fresh, cooked potato a day. Lime juice was used, beginning in the early 19th century by the British Navy. They required the sailors to consume the juice every day to prevent scurvy. This would lead to a nickname, "limey" that was meant to be insulting, as it insinuated that real men didn't need fruit juice to survive.
Even today, there are incidents of scurvy occurring. One of the most common of them seems to be in men who have recently lost a long term spouse. Some of them never learned to cook and start depending on cereals and sandwiches for most of their meals. They don't include the fresh fruits and vegetables they need. Some restrictive fad diets have also been known to cause the illness. Infants, small children and older adults can be at risk. They often have little control over what they are given to eat or can afford to eat. Older adults will sometimes not eat properly, due to lack of interest in food or depression.
Scurvy can be prevented and even cured, simply by consuming the required amount of vitamin C, that the human body needs. Individuals who do not consume the vitamin in the necessary quantities, can remedy the problem by taking one of the synthetic forms that the vitamin comes in today.
Most animals can make their own vitamin C naturally. Humans, some higher forms of primates and a small number of other animals and fish need to ingest the vitamin as they have no natural production of vitamin C in their bodies.