America’s affinity for guns is almost unique in the world; we were raised with movies and TV about police and cowboys and heroic characters who were all carrying guns and shooting them constantly. Constant encounters with these images is among many reasons that you will find so many present-day American gun owners who very much enjoy firing them at firing ranges or on hunts. The portion of the puzzle that you don’t see on television or in the movies is what happens to these shooters in their later years. Many end up close to deaf or suffer serious hearing impairments.

Loss of hearing from noise exposure, termed noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), is among the most common forms of hearing impairment. The harm done to the ears by loud noises has two primary types – damage caused by transient high noise levels, such as gunfire or explosions and damage caused by sustained high noise levels, such as heavy machinery sounds.

The volume of sounds is measured in decibels; complete silence is zero decibels, a whisper is 15 decibels, and a typical conversation is 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, 60 is four times as loud as 40, and 70 is eight times as loud as 40. Extended exposure to noises exceeding 90 decibels (for example a motorcycle) might cause long term hearing loss in just a few weeks. Direct exposure to even brief periods of louder noises,such as a rock concert or a jet engine at 120 decibels, can cause irreversible loss of hearing in just a few minutes.

Gunshots are on the scale at 140 decibels – four times louder than a jet engine and 128 times louder than normal conversation.

One topic that gun fans and hearing specialists agree about is that no one should be shooting a gun without wearing some type of ear protection. Picking out the best suited ear protection depends upon the variety of shooting you plan to do.

If your primary shooting is done at indoor or outdoor gun firing ranges, the best choice at a reasonable price is some type of over-the-ear “muff” type headphones that obstruct transient sounds not just from getting to the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones in back of the ear. The muff can be paired with foam ear plugs for additional protection. Many shooters will pick in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 30 or higher for use with their muffs. The most effective protection – which is also the highest priced – is provided by headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. These headphones block the gun sounds while permitting you to hear normal conversations.

So if you enjoy shooting guns, before you next go to the range, talk to a hearing care specialist about hearing protection. And always bear in mind, ear protection won’t do you a bit of good, at home, inside your backpack, or hanging around your neck. You need to use it at all times.