Vitamin C cannot be made by the human body and so is an essential component of the diet. It is needed for the health and repair of various tissues in the body, including skin, bone, teeth and cartilage. Chronic (persistent) lack of vitamin C in the diet can lead to a condition called scurvy. Symptoms of scurvy include easy bruising, spontaneous bleeding and joint and muscle pains. Vitamin C deficiency can be treated with supplements of vitamin C and a diet rich in vitamin C.
Vitamins are a group of substances needed in small amounts by the body to maintain health. Vitamin C is also called ascorbic acid. It cannot be made by the human body and so is an essential component of the diet. Vitamin C is needed to make a substance called collagen which is required for the health and repair of various tissues in the body, including:
There are various foods that are rich in vitamin C, including:
Certain foods such as cereals are fortified with vitamin C, which means that they have vitamin C added to them. Vitamin C is also found in fresh milk, fish and offal such as liver and kidney.
Around 90% of vitamin C in the human diet is from fruit and vegetables. Cooking fuit and vegetables reduces their vitamin C content by around 30-40%.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin C in the diet depends on your age and sex. Pregnant and breast-feeding women also need higher amounts of vitamin C in their diet.
Deficiency, or a lack, of vitamin C in the body happens because of a lack of sufficient amounts of vitamin C in the diet. Over time, a lack of vitamin C means that new collagen cannot be formed. This causes various tissues in the body to start to break down and the health and repair of the body becomes affected. Chronic (persistent) vitamin C deficiency, usually over a period of around three months or more, can lead to an illness known as scurvy.
Scurvy due to vitamin C deficiency is now thought to be rare in the UK.
There are certain groups of people who are more at risk of vitamin C deficiency. They include:
The first symptoms of vitamin C deficiency tend to be:
Other symptoms can include:
If not diagnosed and treated, vitamin C deficiency can lead to jaundice, generalised oedema (swelling), shortness of breath, nerve problems, fever and convulsions. Bleeding inside the brain and around the heart can cause death in some people with untreated vitamin C deficiency.
Your doctor may suspect vitamin C deficiency after asking you careful questions about your diet and listening to the symptoms that you have. A blood test can be taken to measure vitamin C levels and may help to confirm the diagnosis.
Your doctor may also suggest some other blood tests to check for other deficiencies in your diet. For example, vitamin C is also needed for the absorption of iron from food and so iron deficiency often occurs in people who are deficient in vitamin C.
X-rays to look at your bones may also be suggested because specific changes to the bones, including thinning of the bones, are often seen in someone with vitamin C deficiency.
The treatment for vitamin C deficiency is to replace the vitamin C that is lacking in your diet. This can be achieved by taking vitamin C supplements and by eating a diet rich in vitamin C. You may be referred to a dietician for help. After a period of time, vitamin C supplements can usually be stopped. However, it is important to continue to eat a diet rich in vitamin C after the supplements are stopped to make sure that you do not become deficient in vitamin C again in the future.
People with vitamin C deficiency usually make a full recovery. Once treatment to replace vitamin C is started, symptoms usually quickly improve within days or weeks.
Vitamin C deficiency can be prevented by making sure that you have a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of fruit and vegetables including those high in vitamin C that are listed above. As a rough guide, one large orange a day will provide you with enough vitamin C.