Cerebral malaria (CM) and acute bacterial meningitis (ABM) are the two common causes of impaired consciousness in children presenting to hospital in sub-Sahara Africa. Since the clinical features of the two diseases may be very similar, treatment is often guided by the initial laboratory findings. However, no detailed studies have examined the extent to which the laboratory findings in these two diseases may overlap. We reviewed data from 555 children with impaired consciousness admitted to Kilifi District Hospital, Kenya. Strictly defined groups were established based on the malaria slide, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leucocyte count and the results of blood and CSF culture and CSF bacterial antigen testing. Our data suggests significant overlap in the initial CSF findings between CM and ABM. The absolute minimum proportions of children with impaired consciousness and malaria parasitaemia who also had definite bacterial meningitis were 4% of all children and 14% of children under 1 year of age. The estimated maximum proportion of all children with impaired consciousness and malaria parasitaemia in whom the diagnosis was dual or unclear was at least 13%. The finding of malaria parasites in the blood of an unconscious child in sub-Saharan Africa is not sufficient to establish a diagnosis of cerebral malaria, and acute bacterial meningitis must be actively excluded in all cases.