Updated: 11/09/10 9:42 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Health officials are warning the public about an outbreak of a highly contagious intestinal illness in several suburban schools.

CBS 2’s Pamela Jones reports the symptoms feel like the flu – and there’s no cure.

You can catch it after simply touching a microwave, a door handle, or a faucet.

The Cook County Department of Public Health has issued an alert to suburban schools.

“It’s what people popularly call the stomach flu. What it really is, is diarrhea, vomiting, maybe a low-grade fever, abdominal pain,” said Dr. Susan Gerber, Cook County Dept. of Public Health.

Experts have confirmed infections consistent with noroviruses–a nasty stomach bug often contracted on cruise ships–in more than two dozen areas in the south and northwest suburbs.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s John Cody Reports

Right now, 25 schools across the area have reported students out sick with symptoms of norovirus illness.

“These are just the reports that have been reported to us. So we believe that there are other illnesses out there,” said Dr. Gerber.

Des Plaines School District 62 has students showing the symptoms. That district is using its website to warn parents because of how easily the virus spreads.

It’s passed when an infected person uses the restroom, then heads straight for the door. The bottom line is: somebody didn’t wash their hands.

“That’s exactly right. I mean, the chief way to protect yourself is washing your hands with soap and water,” said Dr. Gerber.

“We cannot stress enough how important it is to stay home if you or your child are experiencing any of these symptoms,” Stephen A. Martin, Jr., chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health said in a statement. “Take extra caution to avoid contamination of your hands when tending to an ill child or family member and always encourage good hand hygiene among household members to limit transmission of infection.”

Moms are listening to the advice.

“We wash our hands. Washing hands is good. But, yeah, antibacterial everything, I figure is overkill,” said one mom.

Another mother, of a 7-year-old girl, promises she’ll spend more time washing her hands now.

“Keep a closer eye on her than what we had before, because normally we try to keep a really close eye on her,” she said.

Health experts say people who think they may have the illness should go to the doctor.

Noroviruses are highly contagious organisms that are capable of surviving on surfaces for up to 12 days.
People may become infected by consuming contaminated food or beverages, touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then putting their hands in their mouth, and sharing foods or eating utensils with someone who is ill.

Symptoms usually occur 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and may persist for one to three days.
Persons with confirmed or suspected norovirus infection must remain home from day care, school, work, and public gatherings for at least 24 hours after being symptom-free. Food handlers must remain off work for at least three days after being symptom-free.

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