America’s passion for guns is practically unique in the world; we were raised with movies and television programs about police and cowboys and heroes who were all carrying guns and firing them all the time. The impression from these visuals was definitely powerful, because this country continues to have millions of gun owners who shoot them often, while hunting or at firing ranges. The portion of the puzzle that you see in the movies or on TV is what happens to these gun shooters in their later years. Many end up nearly deaf or with hearing disabilities.
Guns are loud, and noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a real concern, one of the most frequent reasons for hearing problems in the US. NIHL can be caused by two types of noise – transient sounds at high decibels (such as explosions or gunfire), and sustained high noise levels (such as working around heavy machinery)
The volume or loudness level of sounds is measured in decibels, with zero decibels corresponding to the sound of silence, 20 decibels for the sound of rustling leaves, and 50 to 60 decibels being the level of normal conversation. The logarithmic nature of the decibels scale is hard for many people to understand. A value of 50 is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40. Extended exposure to noises over 90 decibels (for instance a lawn mower) may cause hearing loss in just a few weeks. Exposure to even brief periods of louder noises,for instance a jet engine at 120 decibels, may lead to permanent loss of hearing in just a few minutes.
A typical gunshot measures 140 decibels.
Irrespective of how they may feel about guns, there is one topic on which gun aficionados and hearing professionals agree – no one should be firing guns without using hearing protection. Which kind of hearing protection you should purchase will depend on the places you plan to do the majority of your shooting.
If you usually fire guns at shooting ranges, the best hearing protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, as these keep the sound of gunfire from hitting not only your inner ears, but the cochlear bones behind them. Quite a few shooters augment the over-the-ear muffs by also wearing in-the-ear foam plugs with a NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) of 30 or higher. The best protection – and the highest priced – is offered by headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. These headphones block the gunfire sounds while permitting you to hear normal conversations.
If you are a shooter, talk to your hearing care expert and ask them what kind of ear protection they recommend. They’ll likely have some stern warnings for you; listen to it if you value your hearing.