I am now in my forties, and I have hearing loss. Being a life-long shooter is part of the problem, though being a hunter, more specifically, is probably more the contributing factor. When shooting at the range, I am diligent in wearing hearing protection, but I have fired high-powered rifles, over and over again, in the field at big game since my teen years. Now, couple this with the fact that the other thing I do besides shooting is play hard rock and heavy metal guitar. When I was young and stupid, I played many shows, with many very loud bands, with no earplugs. I remember quite a few nights on stage, followed by days of ears still ringing. Is it any wonder that I have some hearing loss and tinnitus at this point? Hardly.
If you are a shooter (or a rock musician, though that is not my intended audience here), you can take steps to prevent damaging your hearing, and you should do so from the beginning. Many younger folks are quite cavalier about this, and the damage may not manifest until later in your life. There is no undoing hearing loss, so once you lose frequencies, they are gone. A common aspect of such damage to your ears is tinnitus, which is the sound of a constant ring or hum within your ears. This can be a rather life-altering thing to live with. Having a constant buzzing, ringing, or humming sound in your hearing is distracting and can interfere with your mental health. Those who live with tinnitus manage it, but the best way to deal with it is to never get it in the first place, and hearing damage is the most common cause of tinnitus.
So, as a shooter, it is essential that you take hearing protection seriously whenever you are on the range and shooting firearms. There are better products than ever before in this regard, so certainly utilize the tools that are available. Consider the following:
Duration and Decibels
High decibel sound levels, combined with duration, equals damage to your hearing. If you have ever fired a gun without hearing protection, you will notice that your ears will ring for a few minutes. The truth is, if you did that only once in your life, you would probably not have any long-term effects from it unless you fired a very loud firearm indoors. However, continued exposure to such noise is certain to take a toll. The more often you shoot, the more seriously you must take hearing protection.
Also, realize that the environment you shoot in makes a big difference. If you ever shoot at an indoor range with lots of shooters in the bays, you will know firsthand how loud such an environment is. Firing a gun within the confines of a structure dramatically enhances the loudness, so your environment will undoubtedly factor into your hearing safety. I can tell you that I double up on protection when shooting indoors, using both plugs and earmuffs. Most firearms are quite loud, but those that might seem more tolerable in an outdoor environment will be exponentially louder when in an enclosed environment.
Generally, if shooting in any environment, earmuffs are preferable to earplugs as they do a better job of protecting the ear. I only use earplugs when used in conjunction with earmuffs. I prefer not to rely on plugs alone. The modern earmuff options are much better than those of the past, as the comfort, protection, and electronic options have greatly improved. If you are just target shooting and not using a timer, then a conventional set of earmuffs with no electronics is perfectly adequate. However, if using a shot timer (which is a good thing to do when training with the defensive handgun), a set of electronic muffs helps. Also, electronic muffs are a must when taking a class in which you want to hear an instructor clearly.
Electronic earmuffs amplify lower sounds, but the amplification cuts off to not let in the loud sound. Therefore, hearing a timer beep or instructions from a trainer, etc., becomes much easier with electronic earmuffs. Another beneficial role of electronic muffs is to leave a set next to your home defense gun. Unless using a suppressor, any firearm is very loud in the house, and having electronic earmuffs, should you have the time to put them on, will prevent your ears from getting stunned out during an altercation. Also, good electronic muffs offer the ability to have super-human hearing, as they are very sensitive yet do not allow dangerous noise in. These earmuffs are worth having and are much more affordable than before.
While I prefer earmuffs over earplugs for extended practice, I often use plugs with muffs when shooting, especially indoors. Both levels of protection work well when in conjunction with each other. Another role for earplugs, though, is when in the field. If you hunt, for example, a set of electronic plugs is far less intrusive than earmuffs yet will offer adequate protection against only a few rounds fired. Also, conventional earplugs are small and easy to store anywhere, so having several sets available in your range bag and elsewhere always makes good sense so you can double up on protection or offer hearing protection to others if needed.
The technology in hearing protection has improved, and there is simply no excuse not to take advantage of it as a shooter. Be diligent about your hearing protection now to avoid paying for it later.