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I want a substance, of which the victim does not notice any effects, except for a very severe withdrawal effects.

Ideally, it could be a natural water contamination. (Fungus?).

I want severe physical withdrawal symptoms, comparable to heroin. And I want people to start clean and become addicted by accident, so oxygen does not fit.

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on how you define addiction. You can be addicted to porn, tanning, Facebook, etc. A lot of people who are so probably don't think their addicted, but check their mental state out when you take away their iPhone. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 17 '18 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ something like oxygen? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jan 17 '18 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ To exclude @L.Dutch's suggestion of oxygen, are you focusing purely on substances which one does not need to live, and when introduced they have no observable effects, but if you remove them they induce withdraw? Would it be valid to include dosage in this, such that if you ramp it up you experience no observable effects because the body can adapt, but a sudden dose would be observable? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 17 '18 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ @NL628 caffeine has NO effects now? That's news to me and my sleep.. $\endgroup$ – Patrice Jan 18 '18 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ Something you may consider, is that some people don't react the same way as others. E.g. I don't get any noticable effects from caffeine, but if I intake too much, I'll feel harsh withdrawal symptoms. If you're building a world, you could account for a population that has been effectively bred to not feel the effects of different things. I don't think using this would make a good story, (and there are better answers below), but it is a possibility. $\endgroup$ – agweber Jan 18 '18 at 17:41
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Corticosteroids.

The body makes cortisol. This hormone is important for immune function, metabolic functions, blood pressure control and other things. If you take synthetic corticosteroid it will suppress the body's own corticosteroid synthesis. High doses of synthetic steroid have side effects but low doses just mimic what the body does naturally.

If you take low doses for some time, the body becomes dependent on the synthetic corticosteroid. Then if you stop taking the synthetic corticosteroid abruptly your body cannot ramp up its own cortisol synthesis in time to prevent deficiency. This is acute adrenal insufficiency and it is every bit as uncomfortable and considerably more life-threatening than heroin withdrawal.

https://www.medicinenet.com/steroid_withdrawal/article.htm

•Synthetic cortisone medications (corticosteroids) simulate cortisol, a naturally occurring, anti-inflammatory hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Such drugs (for example, prednisone) have since benefited many, but are not without potential side effects.

•The two major problems related to continuous steroid treatment are: 1) drug side effects and 2) symptoms due to changes in the balance of normal hormone secretion (withdrawal symptoms).

•The production of corticosteroids is controlled by a "feedback mechanism," involving the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland, and brain, known as the "hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis" (HPAA).

•Using large doses for a few days or smaller doses for more than two weeks, leads to a prolonged decrease in HPAA function.

•Steroid use cannot be stopped abruptly; tapering the drug gives the adrenal glands time to return to their normal patterns of secretion.

•Withdrawal symptoms and signs (weakness, fatigue, decreased appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain) can mimic many other medical problems. Some may be life-threatening.

•Tapering may not completely prevent withdrawal symptoms. Steroid withdrawal may involve many factors, including a true physiological dependence on corticosteroids.


The fungus thing mentioned in the OP is interesting because fungi do produce steroid hormones including pharmacologically used corticosteroids.

https://www.emlab.com/s/sampling/env-report-09-2006.html

The steroid in "the pill" is produced industrially by the fungus Rhizopus nigricans. Steroids, such as cortisone (used in arthritis treatment) and prednisone, are manufactured with the help of molds.

Could some escaped industrial fungus produce a huge growth in some holding tank and secrete cortisone into the water supply? It seems at least plausible.

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    $\begingroup$ This is my "I learned something today" answer. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Jan 18 '18 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ You need to specify the time frame and dosage to make it a really good answer. 'Some' time is way too vague, especially when you are bringing the adrenal crisis. $\endgroup$ – Olga Jan 18 '18 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga - the excerpt goes into that. /large doses for a few days or smaller doses for more than two weeks/ $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 19 '18 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Will dosage usually is calculated based on body mass. The OP asks for water contamination or something similar. A brief exposure to high doses of steroids will cause visible response in children. Traces of steroids that don’t cause visible effects in children might not be enough to lead to adrenal crisis even in case of a prolonged exposure. Of course, the OP is unclear whether he wants to addict just one person or an entire population... $\endgroup$ – Olga Jan 19 '18 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Olga - it is one thing to lay out in generalities how to make a bomb or poison a human. It is another thing to deliver a recipe with specifics. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 22 '18 at 13:54
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B12

Years ago, I took a B12 vitamin pill for some added energy, since I was working a 3rd shift job and going to "night" school at the same time. I didn't get "hooked" on the pills, and I didn't even really notice a significant energy increase, but I did feel better in general.

However, every time I forgot to take the pill, I had a massive headache that day. Taking a "late" pill didn't immediately solve the headache, but I felt better the day after.

This isn't on the order of a heroine withdrawal, but it was still pretty bad. Fortunately, continuing to not take the pills didn't produce continual headaches, just that first day of missing the vitamin pill.

Conceivably, this could be an additive a local, state, or federal government body decides to add to the water, as a health booster like some places use fluoride.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_fluoridation

In our case, it unfortunately is at a level that causes similar headaches when the water is filtered, or the person travels away from the B12 additive water.

It's not an addiction, per se, but there's definitely a reason for continued use of the B12 water (avoid day long, massive headaches).

Caffeine

There are many people who are addicted to caffeine, and it is considered a poison. We start drinking it as little kids in our soda/pop, then as we get older, we drink more pop, then add coffee, energy drinks, and there are many other caffeine infused items people use on a regular basis.

Years ago I found an online store that was dedicated to caffeinated products, from food to makeup to soap to pretty much anything you can think of, but I can't find it ATM.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caffeine

Caffeine withdrawal can be fairly serious, but not like heroin symptoms. From what little I know about it, they are about the same in what they affect, but caffeine is much milder and lasts a much shorter time.

https://www.caffeineinformer.com/caffeine-withdrawal-symptoms-top-ten

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  • $\begingroup$ I am in a slightly different position and cannot digest B12 at all, meaning I need regular injections of B12 in order to live. B12 anemia is a horrible condition. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Jan 18 '18 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ As the comment section already mentions, caffeine has a very noticeable primary effect (or it wouldn't be as popular) which the question disqualifies. $\endgroup$ – David Foerster Jan 18 '18 at 12:56
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Small, regular amounts of nicotine. Nicotine can seep through your skin, be insuflated, smoked, or ingested orally. You could put it in hand lotion, for example. Or small amounts of amphetamine in coffee daily.

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    $\begingroup$ Nicotine DOES give effects when assumed. Same for amphetamine. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jan 18 '18 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch is it possible to ramp up the dosage from a level that causes no noticeable effects without the user noticing? $\endgroup$ – bendl Jan 18 '18 at 18:20

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