By Wade Bourne

Like many veteran duck hunters, I suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Most of the damage has come from not wearing hearing protection in duck blinds, mainly during my younger years. Now I wear expensive hearing aids, and they help, but I still have difficulty following dialog when I go to the movies. I keep the TV volume on a loud setting. And I often have to ask people to repeat what they say to me.

NIHL, which manifests itself in high- frequency ranges, can start at an early age and progress in severity and pitch. According to Dr. Paul Hanrahan, an audiologist from Traverse City, Michigan, this form of hearing loss is irreversible.

"Hearing aids can amplify sounds, but they can never replace a hunter's natural ability to hear," he says. "This is why waterfowl hunters must be aware of the potential for hearing loss and protect themselves from this disability."

Hanrahan is a hunter and longtime crusader against NIHL. He sees and treats this problem frequently in his practice. "Some 26 million Americans experience hearing loss from work or recreational activities," he says. "Moreover, noise-induced hearing loss is four times more prevalent in hunters and shooters than in the average population. Eighty percent of people who participate in shooting sports have some degree of NIHL."

Although hearing loss can result from aging and various medical conditions, loud and persistent noises are the main causes of this affliction, especially among hunters. "Hearing loss starts with noises louder than 85 decibels," Hanrahan says. "A 12-gauge shotgun blast measures about 155 decibels. The damage from NIHL is cumulative. The more shotgun blasts your ears receive, the greater the hearing loss you will incur. Multiple exposures to loud noises are much more problematic than occasional exposures."

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So what can you do to protect your hearing while you hunt? The obvious answer is to block the sound produced by shotgun blasts by using plugs, muffs, and other protective devices. Foam and rubber earplugs give you the most value for your money, and they're highly effective at preventing hearing loss. The key is to insert the earplugs properly. First roll the earplug into a thin cylinder with your fingers. Then straighten your ear canal by pulling the top of your ear up and back. Insert the plug into your ear and hold it in place with your finger for 20 to 30 seconds while it expands and fills the ear canal. Once firmly in place, earplugs will form a seal, muffling sounds to the point that normal conversation will be difficult to understand.

Earmuffs offer roughly the same protection as earplugs but can be easier to use and more comfortable to wear. The one drawback of earmuffs is that they can interfere with your gun mount as you bring the stock to your cheek. Employing a combination of muffs and plugs will double your hearing protection.

Custom-fitted earplugs represent the next step up in terms of price and quality. "An audiologist can take mold impressions of a hunter's ear canal and send them off to a company to make custom earplugs," Hanrahan explains. "They're very good for getting a tight fit to block damaging sounds."

Among the highest-end hearing protectors are electronic earplugs and earmuffs, which allow low-decibel sounds into the ear but block high-decibel sounds. "These are set by the manufacturer to cut off at 85 to 90 decibels," Hanrahan says.

"So the wearer may have soft or normal sounds amplified to this range. Anything louder and the device shuts down, diminishing sounds by 20 to 28 decibels. In my experience, the less expensive of these devices are just as effective as the more expensive ones. They just don't have as many bells and whistles for amplification."

Given how damaging shooting noises can be to the ears, you'd think that most hunters would use hearing protection, but Hanrahan says that between 80 and 90 percent don't. "The usual excuses are that hearing protectors are too bothersome to wear or too expensive," he says. "But what does it cost to buy a new shotgun or to take a hunting trip out of state? And what is your hearing worth in comparison? It's beyond my understanding why hunters don't take better care of their hearing."