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Synergism: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

In this lesson we're going to take a look at the phenomenon of synergism. We'll see how synergism is used in the healthcare field to treat patients and we'll go over an example of how it can cause undesired effects in the body.

What is Synergism?

Think back to a time when you had to move all of your belongings from one place to another. You probably looked around at your boxes of stuff and thought it was going to take forever to move it all on your own! Now let's imagine that you asked a friend to help you out to make things easier. But your friend can only move boxes in the morning, and you can only move boxes at night. Your friend works alone for a couple of hours, and then you work alone. Things are still going slowly! Finally, you realize that the only way to speed things up is to figure out a time when you can both move boxes together.

The above situation is a good example of something called synergism. Synergism is when two or more agents or structures (in this case, you and your friend) work together in order to accomplish a goal quicker than they would on their own.

Synergism in Healthcare

Synergism is used quite often in healthcare in order to help treat patients. Physicians will often use more than one drug and/or therapeutic agent to help patients recover from illnesses and conditions. This is very commonly seen when patients are being treated for certain bacterial infections. The physician may prescribe a penicillin antibiotic and another type of antibiotic. An example of this is when physicians treat bacterial heart infections with ampicillin and gentamicin. This is done because the two antibiotics target different parts of the bacteria, and taking them together kills the bacteria quicker, resulting in the patient feeling better sooner.

More than one medication to treat the same condition or disease is synergism
Picture of pill bottles

Cancer treatment presents yet another example of synergism. Patients with cancers are quite frequently put on both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These work to stop the growth of cancer cells by targeting different parts of the replication process. In addition to using chemotherapy and radiation therapy synergistically, physicians may also use different chemotherapy drugs at the same time. This is again done because the drugs will work against the growth of cancer cells in different manners, which will rid the body of cancer cells in a quicker and more efficient manner.

Alcohol and depressants together show synergism
Picture of empty alcohol bottles

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