Students: are you sure that's freshers' flu and not meningitis?

Last updated 25 September 2023

What with lectures, parties and meeting new people, your uni years can leave you feeling a run down. But are those sniffles fresher's flu, or something else?

Students sometimes miss the signs of a much more serious illness known as meningitis. Its symptoms are similar to those of freshers' flu - the collective coughs, fevers and viruses caught during your time 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 or already at university, make sure you know the signs. And make sure you've been vaccinated against meningitis and measles.

What is freshers' flu?

When students arrive for their first year at university, there is often a wave of colds and bugs that go around the student population. These are referred to collectively as 'freshers' flu'.

The coming together of large numbers of people from the UK and overseas brings with it bacteria and viruses that some people haven't previously been exposed to. In addition, with freshers' week occurring at the end of September and early October, it coincides with the start of the annual flu season. 

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection where the linings that surround the brain and spinal cord swell up. It can be caused by different types of bacteria or viruses, and can happen to anyone at any age.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

According to the NHS, the symptoms of meningitis are:

  • High temperature
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Breathing quickly
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Pale, mottled or blotchy skin
  • Spots or a rash
  • Headache and stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Very sleepy or difficult to wake
  • Fits (seizures)

Why is it so serious?

While it isn't a common illness it can be fatal, even in healthy young adults. When someone has meningitis, their health can deteriorate quickly so 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, there are some more serious symptoms to look out for that point to meningitis.

What are the more serious signs of meningitis?

As well as flu-like symptoms, signs of meningitis include a high temperature, severe headache, being sensitive to light and neck stiffness (not being able to touch your chin to your chest).

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 can be a sign of blood poisoning caused by 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.

Step-by-step: first aid for meningitis

  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 if you see 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. Reassure them 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

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