The recreational use of nitrous oxide, also known as "laughing gas", is on the rise among young people in Europe and producing a worrying number of poisonings, the European Union drugs monitoring agency has said in a study.

The growing popularity of the substance stems from its availability, low price and ease of use, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel said the rise in the recreational use of nitrous oxide in some parts of Europe is a cause for concern.

"There is a general perception among users that inhalation of nitrous oxide is safe. Yet we see that more frequent or heavier use of the gas increases the risk of serious harms."

Nitrous oxide has a variety of legitimate medical, industrial, commercial and scientific functions.

It is commonly used in maternity wards in Ireland during childbirth where it is known as 'gas and air'.

It is also used in whipped cream dispensers or water siphons and is sold in inexpensive cartridges online or in supermarkets.

However, in recent years, it has also become more popular as a relaxant that leaves the user feeling euphoric, the EU drugs agency said.

The cartridges are normally consumed by filling party balloons, from which the gas is then inhaled, but more recently users have been inhaling directly from dispensers or cartridges, which poses a high risk of severe cold burns and lung injury.

It also affects several brain and spinal cord networks.

In the United Kingdom, nitrous oxide is the second most prevalent drug among young adults aged 16 to 24, after cannabis, the EMCDDA said.

The Netherlands had 144 cases of nitrous oxide poisoning in 2020 and reported a sharp rise in car accidents caused by driving while intoxicated or trying to fill balloons.

Mr Goosdeel said "It is therefore important to avoid normalising and unintentionally promoting its use."

In order to control the use of the gas, the EMCDDA has proposed reducing the size of packages and banning sales to those under-18.