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Americans really like their guns. Some of this interest originates from movies and television programs where cowboys, policemen and bad guys are wearing their guns with pride and constantly firing at each other. Regular exposure to these images is among many reasons that you will find so many American gun owners who very much enjoy firing them on hunts or at firing ranges. But what the television programs and movies didn’t show was that anyone firing guns on a regular basis probably spent the final years of their lives deaf, or suffering from significant hearing problems.

Hearing loss from noise exposure, named noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL, is one of the most widespread forms of hearing disability. The harm done to hearing by loud sounds takes two forms – damage caused by transient high noise levels (for example gunfire or explosions) and damage caused by sustained high noise levels (for example heavy machinery sounds).

The volume level of sounds is measured in decibels, with zero decibels being the sound of complete silence, 20 decibels for the sound of rustling leaves, and 50 to 60 decibels being the volume of a typical conversation. The decibel scale is logarithmic. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40 decibels. Extended exposure to noises exceeding 90 decibels (for instance a lawn mower) can cause hearing loss in just a few weeks. Ear damage may also happen in a much shorter time (minutes) from contact with much louder noise levels, such as the 120 decibels at near a jet engine or rock concert.

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

One subject that most hearing specialists and gun owners agree about is that nobody should be shooting a gun without some kind of ear protection. Finding the ideal hearing protection depends on the type of shooting you plan to do.

If you usually shoot guns at shooting ranges, the ideal ear protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, because they prevent the gunfire sounds from reaching not only your inner ears, but also the cochlear bones behind them. Many recreational lshooters augment the over-the-ear muffs by also wearing in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or more. On the high end of the price range you can also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones developed especially for shooters, which are pricy but which will offer the highest levels of protection. They also have the benefit of enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations, while blocking the transient high-decibel sound of the gunshots.

Regardless of whether you’re a novice or experienced range shooter, ask your hearing care specialist about the latest in hearing protection choices, and under no circumstances go to the range without protection. Then adhere to the advice they give, while you can still hear them saying it.

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