Americans really like their guns. Some of this interest originates from movies and TV where cowboys, policemen and bad guys are sporting their guns with pride and regularly firing at one another. These visuals seem to have created a lasting impression, because many millions still delight in shooting guns, either at firing ranges or while hunting. But what the movies and television programs didn’t show was that anyone firing guns on a regular basis probably spent the last few decades of their lives deaf, or struggling with serious hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) accounts for a sizeable proportion of hearing disabilities in today’s world. The harm done to hearing by loud noises has two main types – damage caused by transient high noise levels (e.g. explosions or gunfire) and damage caused by sustained high noise levels (e.g. heavy machinery sounds).

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels; complete silence is zero decibels, rustling leaves are 20 decibels, and normal conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic. A value of 50 is twice as loud as 40, 60 is four times as loud as 40, and 70 is eight times as loud as 40 decibels. Long term loss of hearing resulting from NIHL may occur after prolonged exposure to noises exceeding 90 decibels within a couple weeks. Damage may also occur much faster – inside a few minutes – from contact with higher decibel noise levels, for instance the 120 decibels you experience around a rock concert. Gunshots come in at 140 decibels – four times louder than a jet engine and 128 times louder than normal conversation.

Regardless of how they may feel about guns and firearms, there is one subject on which gun enthusiasts and hearing specialists concur – nobody should be firing guns without wearing hearing protection. What kind of ear protection is ideal depends to some extent on where you are shooting.

If you normally fire guns at shooting ranges, the most-recommended ear protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, as these keep the gunfire sounds from reaching not only your inner ears, but also the cochlear bones behind them. Some shooters who care about their hearing combine over-the-ear ear muffs with in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher, to ensure even more protection. The most effective protection – which is also the most costly – comes from headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones offer the added benefit of permitting you to hear normal-volume conversations while cancelling out the transient sounds of gunfire.

If you’re a shooter, talk to your hearing care specialist and ask them what type of hearing protection they recommend. Then adhere to the advice they give, while you can still hear them talking to you.

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