One of the most common and ubiquitous causes of hearing loss is noise exposure. Yet hearing loss from noise exposure is completely preventable if you use hearing protection. Depending on the type of noise to which you’re exposed, many options are available to protect your hearing.
Typically, hearing damage begins when you’re exposed to noise above 85 decibels (dB). This may be a rock band, heavy equipment, tools in a shop, or gunfire. For example, a big bore rifle or handgun may generate 150 dB; standing next to such a firearm when it goes off a single time may damage your hearing for life.
Noise protection products are rated by their NRR, or Noise Reduction Rating. A higher NRR (or dB) rating indicates a higher level of protection, so a pair of muffs (for example) with an NRR rating of 21 offers less protection than a pair of foam earplugs rated 30.
The earplugs shown to the right offer a 33 decibel reduction!
Hearing protection can be classified as passive hearing protection, electronic hearing protection, and ear plugs. Which one you want depends on the environment you’re in.
Ear plugs come in three basic types: single-use foam plugs, reusable washable ear plugs, and ear plugs that are custom molded.
Single use foam plugs are cheap and disposable. The NRR on them generally is around 30 dB when they’re inserted correctly. They’re good alone in many noise environments, and can be used under earmuffs in high-noise situations. A slightly more expensive alternative is foam plugs that are connected by a cord or headband.
Multiple use plugs are a little more sophisticated than inexpensive foam earplugs. They’re made of soft, rubberized material that conforms to the shape of the ear canal. Some types have internal “cutoff” valves that are activated by sudden noises such as gunfire.
Several companies offer custom molded earplugs. They’re more expensive than disposable foam ones but much less expensive than electronic hearing protection. Several do-it-yourself kits are available.
Passive hearing protection usually refers to ear muffs, which are readily available at big box hardware stores and sporting goods stores. The key to using them properly is to be sure they fit comfortably but firmly around the user’s head and ears. There are several variations on this theme: some fold up, others have a compact headband, and some come in different sizes for children and youth. They even come in pink for women.
The NRR on passive ear muffs generally ranges from 21 to 26. One advantage to them, however, is that in high noise environments you can “double up” by wearing them over foam ear plugs and getting a higher level of protection than from either one alone.
Electronic hearing protection centers on noise compression technology. This kind of hearing protection amplifies conversation but has a circuit that shuts off or compresses potentially damaging noise levels to protect the user’s hearing.
Electronic hearing protection can be muffs or in-the-ear protection. Some muffs are single control, where both sides are turned up, down, or off together, and some are dual control where the two sides are independent of each other. NRRs run in the mid-20s on most pairs. The user also can turn off the electronic component and use them as passive protection if he or she wishes.
Several in-the-ear electronic models are on the market as well. Only a few of these are custom fitted, and those that are tend to be expensive.
Regardless of the type, however, anyone working or playing in a noisy environment needs some type of hearing protection. It takes only one “event” to damage hearing for life.