Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: You are very wise to be concerned and to want to do something about it. A set of ear plugs needn't cost a lot and, if you play or go to loud gigs regularly, should be considered a necessity.
Hearing damage is directly related to both sound level and length of exposure. So, even if you don't want to wear ear plugs when you're performing, consider wearing them when you're rehearsing, as well as at gigs — it has been suggested that musicians often do more damage to their ears during the many hours of rehearsal than in the comparatively short time they spend on stage.
I would recommend investigating the options for good-quality ear plugs that reduce the overall level of sound but maintain an even spectral balance so that you can still hear everything clearly, although the overall level is reduced. Disposable solid-foam ear plugs won't give you this even balance and will adversely affect your enjoyment of the music. You can often find suitable generic ear plugs in the good musical instrument and equipment retailers, sold as 'musicians' earplugs', and available in different strengths (amounts of attenuation). Obviously, the greater the number of dBs of attenuation, the better overall protection they offer.
However, for a really comfortable and long-lasting solution, I would recommend making an appointment with a good audiologist who will be able to take ear moulds and make earplugs to your precise specifications that will be comfortable to wear for long periods and easy to clean and look after. Custom-made earplugs will cost more, but considering that hearing damage is irreversible, if you value your ears the cost should be irrelevant!
More information and advice is available from the RNID (www.rnid.org.uk). The web site of their ongoing 'Don't Lose The Music' campaign (www.dontlosethemusic.com) is aimed specifically at musicians, DJs, clubbers and concert-goers and is linked with two hearing protection specialists — Advanced Communication Solutions, or ACS for short (www.hearingprotection.co.uk), and Sensorcom (www.sensorcom.com) — who can produce custom-fitted ear plugs.