For many people, autumn colors and cool mornings signal the beginning of the long awaited hunting season. Gun safety is important to most hunters, but some other lesser-known precautions are overlooked.
"I'm an avid sportsman, and I'm amazed by how many people don't wear hearing protection when they shoot guns," said Dr. Thomas Lowry, an otolaryngologist at Mayo Clinic Health System. "I see patients every week with hearing loss, and a large number of those patients have a history of noise exposure without the use of hearing protection."
Studies show that people who use guns are more likely to develop permanent hearing loss than those who don't. Shooting without hearing protection practically guarantees that you will suffer at least some degree of hearing loss in your lifetime.
Aging and heredity also contribute to hearing loss, but exposure to noise, especially noise from guns, is a preventable variable that you can control to reduce your risk of hearing loss.
One shot can cause loss
To put things into perspective, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that on-the-job noise exposure to a level of 115 decibels not exceed 15 minutes per day. A .22-caliber rifle produces a noise level of 140 decibels, and a typical deer rifle can produce noise greater than 175 decibels.
Sound levels can increase at firing ranges, where sound waves bounce off walls. Permanent hearing loss can occur with a single shot if no hearing protection is used. In addition to hearing loss, tinnitus — or ringing in the ears — can develop temporarily or permanently.
"The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is preventable," Lowry added. "Wearing hearing protection, such as earplugs or muffs, allows you to still hear soft sounds, while preventing damage to your ears from loud noises, especially with some of the more expensive options."
Lowry said you also could wear hearing protection around your neck while in the woods and quietly put it in place just before the shot. Sporting goods stores usually carry an assortment of inexpensive, effective products.
Lowry suggests that hunters set a good example and wear hearing protection when hunting with family and friends. This will help children or grandchildren know the importance of wearing hearing protection — similar to wearing a helmet when riding a bike.
"Hearing protection is necessary when using guns," Lowry said. "Make the effort to bring hearing protection for all shooters and bystanders when target shooting and hunting.
"Believe it or not, once you make this a habit, you'll be surprised how little it affects your hunting experience."