Important sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, spinach, and potatoes. Recommended daily intake is 75 to 90 mg, with smokers requiring 110 to 125 mg daily because of increased oxidative stress.6-9 Although access to these foods in the modern United States is high, as many as 10% of males and 6.9% of females are vitamin C deficient, and in the subset of generally healthy middle-class Americans, as many as 6% are deficient.8,10 The highest risk groups tend to be smokers and individuals with low incomes.8 Although vitamin C deficiency does not automatically equate to scurvy, early studies on experimentally induced scurvy in prisoners showed that signs of scurvy may begin to develop in as few as 29 days of complete vitamin C deprivation, with overt scurvy developing after approximately 40 to 90 days.11,12
Patients with scurvy often pose a diagnostic dilemma for physicians because their presenting symptoms, such as fatigue, anemia, and rash, are nonspecific and can lead physicians down a laborious and costly road of unnecessary tests including vasculitic, infectious, and rheumatologic workups to determine the cause of the symptoms. Increased awareness of the current prevalence of hypovitaminosis C may help to decrease these unnecessary costs by putting scurvy higher on the differential for patients with this spectrum of symptoms.
Scurvy has been called the eternal masquerader because its nonspecific signs and symptoms have often led to misdiagnosis.13 Cases of scurvy mimicking diseases ranging from bone tumors14 to spondyloarthritis15 and vasculitis16 have been reported. The typical patient at risk for scurvy tends to fall in one of the following categories: psychiatric illness, gastrointestinal disorders, malnourishment, chronic alcoholism, drug use, elderly age, infants, restrictive dietary habits or food allergies, or those in developing countries.17-20 Our patient did not fit particularly well into any of the aforementioned high-risk categories; he had only recently become homeless and had a history of intravenous drug use but had not been using drugs in the months prior to the development of scurvy. Additionally, his salient symptoms were more consistent with reactive arthritis than with classic scurvy.
Although he had many symptoms consistent with scurvy such as generalized malaise, perifollicular hemorrhage and hyperkeratosis, spongy edema of the joints, and mild anemia on laboratory testing, he was missing several classic scurvy symptoms. Unlike many patients with scurvy, our patient did not describe any history of bruising easily or dental concerns, and examination was notably absent of ecchymoses as well as spongy or bleeding gums. He did, however, present with eye irritation and photophobia. These symptoms, consistent with keratoconjunctivitis sicca, are lesser known because ocular findings are rarely found in scurvy.21 Patients with scurvy can report eye burning and irritation, redness, blurry vision, and sensitivity to bright light secondary to increased dryness of the corneal surfaces. Horrobin et al22 postulated that this symptom may be mediated by regulation of prostaglandin E1 by vitamin C.
Another less common sign of scurvy found in our patient was patchy alopecia. Alopecia most often is seen in association with concomitant Sjögren syndrome.11,23 The etiology of the hair loss stems from the role of ascorbic acid in disulfide bonding during hair formation. The hair may fracture, coil into a corkscrew hair, or bend in several places, leading to a swan-neck deformity. Although a skin biopsy was not performed in our patient, results typically demonstrate a coiled hair in its follicle.24,25
We present the case of an otherwise generally healthy patient who developed vitamin C deficiency due to a diet consisting mostly of soda and energy drinks. His case presented a diagnostic dilemma, as his symptoms at first seemed most consistent with reactive arthritis and he was missing several of the risk factors and symptoms that would have led to an early diagnosis of scurvy. Vitamin C deficiency is not as uncommon as expected in the developed world; practitioners must be aware of the common as well as the unusual signs of scurvy.