Americans like their guns. Some of this interest comes from movies and TV where policemen, cowboys and bad guys are donning their guns with delight and regularly shooting at one another. The impression from these images was definitely potent, because America continues to have millions of gun owners who fire them on a regular basis, while hunting or at ranges. But what the television programs and movies didn’t show was that anyone shooting guns on a regular basis probably spent the last few decades of their lives deaf, or struggling with serious hearing problems.

Guns are noisy, and noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real concern, among the most common reasons for hearing losses in the US. Noise-induced hearing loss can have two primary sources. Transient high noise levels (for example explosions or gunfire), and sustained high noise levels (for example working around heavy machinery)

Sound levels are measured on the decibel scale. Zero decibels is complete silence. Rustling leaves are around 20 decibels. A normal conversation is around 50 to 60 decibels. The logarithmic nature of the decibels scale is challenging for many people to understand. A value of 60 is twice as loud as 50, 70 is four times as loud as 50, and 80 is eight times as loud as 50 decibels. Irreversible loss of hearing resulting from noise-induced hearing loss can arise from extended exposure to sounds exceeding 90 decibels in just a few weeks. Comparable damage can occur much faster at higher decibel levels. It only takes a few minutes of noises at 120 decibels, such as from a jet engine or rock concert, to result in permanent ear damage.

Gunshots measure a whopping 140 decibels.

One subject that most hearing professionals and gun aficionados agree about is that nobody should be shooting a gun lacking some type of hearing protection. Which type of ear protection you should purchase depends on the places you do most of your shooting.

If you typically shoot guns at ranges, the optimal hearing protection is the “muff” headphones which fit over the ear, because they keep the sound of gunfire from reaching not only your inner ears, but the cochlear bones behind them. The muff can be combined with in-the-ear foam ear plugs for added protection. Many shooters will choose in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 30 or higher to use with their muffs. For even greater protection, go with headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. They are the most expensive choice, but do provide highest level of protection. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones have the additional benefit of enabling you to hear normal conversations while blocking out the transient sounds of gunfire.

So if you enjoy firing guns, before your next visit to the shooting range, talk to a hearing care professional about hearing protection. Then stick to the recommendations they give, while you can still hear them saying it.