The number of people admitted to hospitals for heart failure drops on major holidays but then climbs in the days that follow, a new study suggests.

People may avoid going to the hospital on holidays because they don't want to ruin holiday plans or they assume doctor offices are closed, said Dr. Maria Mountis, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio who was not involved with the study.

"If you don't feel well, you should seek treatment," she said. "The longer you delay treatment, the longer it will take for you to get better."

Eating high-salt foods, lack of exercise and the stress of traveling during the holidays may contribute to the spike in hospital admissions, study coauthor Dr. Mahek Shah from the Lehigh Valley Hospital Network in Pennsylvania told Reuters Health by phone.

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"All of these activities tip the scale for you to accumulate fluid and gain weight - causing heart failure symptoms to (worsen)," he said.

Nearly 5 million Americans suffer from heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart can't pump as well as it needs to. As a result, fluid builds up in the feet, ankles, legs and lungs, causing people to experience fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty walking.

Shah and colleagues reviewed data on 22,727 patients admitted to Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia with heart failure between 2003 and 2013.

Most were African American and female, with other diseases in addition to heart failure, including hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and coronary heart disease. The average age was 68.

The researchers divided the patients into three groups, depending on whether they were admitted on a holiday (Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, New Year's Day or Super Bowl Sunday), within four days following the holiday, or on other days in the same month.

Over the years, the average number of patients admitted for heart failure on Independence Day was 3.8. That number rose to an average of 5.6 per day in the days immediately after the holiday, and settled at 5 per day during the rest of the month, the authors reported in the journal Clinical Research in Cardiology.

Every year on Christmas Day, 3.6 patients were admitted, on average. In the four days after Christmas, that number rose to 6.5 per day. On other days in December, however, the average number of patients being admitted for heart failure was 5.5.

Similar patterns were seen for Thanksgiving, New Year's Day and Super Bowl Sunday, the researchers said.

Having more than one hospital included in the study would have made the findings more reliable, said Mountis, but she did think the results provide useful information for people with heart failure.

She cautioned that symptoms like weight gain and shortness of breath can worsen 24 to 48 hours after eating high salt foods, and she urged people to be vigilant in how they manage their heart condition.

"For people with heart failure, the American Heart Association recommends eating 1,500 to 2,000 mg sodium per day," Mountis said. "Eating a single hot dog could have up to 1,000 mg of sodium so eating in moderation is important."

"Weigh yourself every morning, if your weight goes up more than 2 to 3 pounds, that should be a clue that you're retaining too much fluid," she said.

She also advises patients to read food labels and work closely with someone who can help them keep track of how much salt they eat every day.

"I don't want people to deny themselves the enjoyment of the holidays," she said. "But they should be extra cautious in monitoring their food intake whether it's the holiday or a special occasion."

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2614ryW Clinical Research in Cardiology, online May 24, 2016.