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How Long Do You Have to Cut Off a Zombie-Bitten Limb?

A light flickers unpredictably overhead. It’s hard to make out any definite shapes, but you know there are bodies at your feet. You press on cautiously, hand on the wall, towards what you will hope will be the hospital’s storeroom. A snag on your tattered jeans. This time it happened. Your companions stomp the biting mouth making clicking sounds under a gurney. You just stare at your leg. It has to come off.

But how quickly?

For all intents and purposes, most zombies in fiction are just vectors – agents that carry and transmit an infectious pathogen – for some pandemic disease. And like other vectors such as mosquitoes, the transfer of pathogens is only complete once they circulate enough in your bloodstream and get where they need to go. In theory, if a bitten limb were removed from the body before your circulatory system distributed the pathogen, you wouldn’t contract the disease.

Your body’s circulation time, as with most of your vital statistics, depends on your age, height, weight, etc. However, it doesn’t vary widely. The amount of time it would take a blood cell to make a round-trip from lungs to heart to body and back to heart and lungs is somewhere between 20 seconds and one minute.


What your circulation time means for stopping a zombie infection after a bite is that you are fighting the clock. If you were bit in the leg, you certainly have your circulation time to remove the limb, probably even less as amputation at the thigh or hip is not really an option in the apocalypse. Conservatively, you’d have less than 10 seconds. Sorry, Hershel.

It doesn’t really matter if The Walking Dead’s zombie virus has further to go – it does its work in the brain. Once the viral particles ride your veins into the torso, there is nothing to amputate. Of course, The Walking Dead is a special case. A zombie bite isn’t what actually kills characters in that show.

So, you’re bit. You have five seconds or less to amputate. Your heart is racing, pumping blood even faster from the wound. I hope your group is prepared.

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

IMAGES: AMC; Rogeriopfm

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  1. stardude says:

    OK, leaving out the walking dead.  A normal zombie virus would not immediately get into the bloodstream.  blood tends to flow out from a wound flushing it,  I don’t think much material gets sucked into the veins and transported throughout the body.

  2. Thomas says:

    I’ve often wondered that myself. How does a bite turn someone in the walking dead when everyone is already infected. Seems more like they are dieing of massive gangrene or something.

  3. tlegower says:

    This doesn’t apply in the Walking Dead world. According to the story, everyone is already infected with the virus, so how quickly the zombie virus will spread from a bite is not relevant. The question to answer is how long do you have to amputate a leg before the person dies of blood loss or other infection or any of the other complications. 

  4. EgoMartini says:

    I see no need to confuse WD wit reality 

  5. Mmocks says:

    Isn’t everyone infected with the virus now anyway?  Even non-bite deaths result in reanimation.  So How does that factor in? Inquiring minds want to know!! =D 

  6. Benj says:

    Could you tourniquet the wound effectively enough to perform the amputation later?  Life or limb and all that.