A young woman sits with a book and notebook on her lap holding her head while other students drink coffe and smile in the background

© Steve Debenport


The new academic term is a time for meeting fresh faces, getting to grips with new timetables… and freshers’ flu. But are you sure that’s what your flu-like symptoms are?

Students sometimes miss the signs of a much more serious illness known as meningitis because its symptoms are similar to that of freshers’ flu – the collective coughs, fevers and viruses caught during your first few weeks at university.

Meningitis is rare – but can be life threatening. Students are at more risk of it because they often live in close proximity to one another.

So if you’re heading to university this month, make sure you know the signs.

What is it?

Meningitis is a disorder in which the linings that surround the brain and spinal cord swell up. It can be caused by different types of bacteria or a virus, and can happen to anyone at any age.

Why is it so serious?

While it isn’t a common illness, it can be fatal even in healthy young adults. The condition of someone with meningitis can deteriorate quickly – medical help is needed as soon as possible.

Why does it get confused with freshers’ flu?

The symptoms for meningitis are similar to freshers’ flu. These include a runny nose, headaches and a high temperature. But as well as the sniffles and a growing pile of used tissues, there are some more serious symptoms to look out for that point to meningitis (read on).

What are the more serious signs of meningitis?

As well as flu-like symptoms, signs of meningitis include being sensitive to light and a stiff neck. Other symptoms include cold hands and feet, joint pain, drowsiness and vomiting.

There could also be a rash – but there might not be. Rashes usually appear in the later stages of meningitis and sometimes do not appear at all. So if someone is showing signs of meningitis, don’t wait for a rash to appear – call 999 immediately.

There’s a rash – does this mean it is meningitis?

A meningitis related rash is made up of small red/purple ‘pin prick’ spots that may spread to look like fresh bruising. If the person has a rash, press the side of a clear glass against their skin – most rashes will fade when pressed. If you can still see the rash through the glass it is possibly meningitis.

However, if someone doesn’t have a rash it could still be meningitis. Do not wait for a rash to appear to call 999.


  1. The person may have flu-like symptoms, a headache and a high temperature. They may also complain of a stiff neck and be sensitive to light. At a later stage a rash may form (that does not disappear when a glass is pressed against it).
  2. Call 999 when you observe these symptoms. Do not wait for all the symptoms to appear. A person with meningitis can deteriorate very quickly. It is potentially very serious and needs immediate attention.
  3. Give constant reassurance until help arrives. If they have a fever, you can use cold drinks to cool the person.

Watch our video about first aid for meningitis.