Things To Do and Not To Do If Your Car Overheats

To avoid engine damage and expensive repairs, it is vital to know what to do when your car engine overheats. Read on.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, but the world is trying to regain some sense of normalcy. People have started to move out and go to work as they used to in the past.

(Image credit:

Some are planning road trips to combat boredom. However, one of the common issues with car journeys is the overheating of the engine. An engine that gets overly toasty is a cause of concern since it might get damaged permanently and threaten your safety.

This means it's essential to be informed about what to do when your car overheats. This article discusses in detail the actions you should take, and other information such as the underlying cause of overheat.

But before that, let's begin with signs that are indicative of a toasted engine. Identifying these signs is vital because a timely diagnosis of the problem will save the engine from further deterioration.

Signs That Your Engine Is Overheating

Here are the most common signs of an overheating engine that we should pay attention to first.

  • Smoke billowing out from underneath the hood is a telltale sign that the engine is running hot.
  • Different types of odor coming from the front of the car could be symptomatic of an overheated engine. For example, a sweet smell could be a result of coolant leakage, while a burnt smell may be occurring because oil is leaking.
  • Flashing of dashboard warning light or the gauge spiking to 'H' suggests that the engine is not keeping its cool.
  • Loud thumping noise from the engine could be a sign of an overheating engine.
  • Usually an overheated engine will not speed up as you desire. If this happens in conjunction with any other symptoms above, it needs immediate attention.

What Causes an Engine to Overheat

While identifying the symptoms of an overheating engine is the first step towards rectifying the fault, even more important is to identify why an engine overheats in the first place. Putting a finger on the exact cause allows us to fix the problem more quickly and effectively.

The reasons for a car to overheat are many, and are mainly associated with the car's cooling systems. Malfunction of any of the components in the cooling systems can critically damage the engine and result in expensive repairs.

Here are a few common reasons why car engines run hot:

  • Coolant: A car cooling system helps keep the engine temperature down. Leaks, blockage, or pump malfunction of the system could hamper proper coolant circulation. And this can happen not only under hot conditions but also when the temperature is low, as coolant may freeze and stop moving. Having lower coolant levels than recommended by the manufacturer is also a potential culprit.
  • Radiator cooling fan: Radiators and their cooling fans reduce engine heat by decreasing coolant temperatures. But if an issue occurs with the fans, that would affect the radiators' capability to dissipate heat. This results in an unnatural temperature increase.
  • Car thermostat: The thermostat is also responsible for an uninterrupted flow of coolant through the engine. A broken or malfunctioning thermostat can easily make the engine overheat.
  • Low motor oil: The car's oil does more than just lubricating the vehicle's moving parts: it also sucks out excess heat from the engine. If your vehicle is running low on oil, that's another potential cause of engine overheat.
  • Plugged-up heater core: Your engine might also get overly hot if the heat exchanger unit is clogged or blocked, obstructing the flow of the coolant.

Things to Do If Your Car Overheats

Usually the factors we mentioned above are what's causing your engine to overheat, but remember that there are other possible reasons too. It is always advisable to get your car inspected by a mechanic.

And yes, it's always midway through the journey where your engine heats up, where there's no quick access available to a service center or a mechanic. In such situations, what comes in handy is your knowledge about the steps you need to follow.

Here are some steps you should be taking if you get stuck on the road with your vehicle bristling with heat.

Turn off AC

If you are on a long journey and the engine is about to heat up, first and foremost, turn off the AC. It will lessen the burden on the engine. Switching off the AC will help you sustain at the same operating temperature for quite some time before the engine gets overheated.

Turn on heater

If your AC is off and the engine is feeling toasty, try turning on the heater. This will remove the heat from the engine, cooling it down quickly. You may have to endure an uncomfortable time in the cabin, especially during the summer, but taking this action prevents the engine from getting overheated while you're on the go. To allow the heat to escape from your cabin, you can roll down the window or crank open your sunroof, if that's a feature in your car.

Pull over at a safe place

If the engine continues to boil over even with the heater on, your best option is to stop the car at a safe spot, preferably under a shade so that direct sun rays don't further heat the engine. Turn the engine off to give it time to cool down, and in the meantime, if you have roadside assistance, make a call; your car may need a tow.

An overheating engine in traffic will be quite a headache. But you have to remain calm and find out what to do.

The first thing you must do if you're caught up in traffic with an overheating engine is to put the car in neutral or park and rev the engine a bit. It will ensure the flow of water and air through the radiator, cooling it down.

Remember that braking generates friction, which in turn increases heat. So if you are in stop-and-go traffic, make it a point to creep your car rather than alternating between braking and accelerating.

Open the hood

Don't open the hood right after you park your car: wait for at least 15 minutes so that the engine fully cools down. Remember that a hot engine can spew boiling coolant or smoke under high pressure, causing you serious bruises. Be very careful when opening the hood. We highly recommend using gloves when touching the engine.

Some people pour water over the radiator as soon as smoke stops coming out of the engine, in order to bring the temperature further down. But we don't recommend doing this because, if not timed properly, the radiator may crack.

Check for the leak

Identifying issues in the cooling system isn't too difficult, even if you are not a professional mechanic. Start by checking the coolant tank, which is usually a translucent plastic container near the radiator.

1. If you find the coolant tank empty, then you may have sprung a leak. Look underneath the car. If you see a drip or a puddle, chances are the coolant tank is leaking.

If there is a leak, locate the radiator cap using the owner's manual if necessary. Open the cap carefully with a towel over it to protect your hand. Now fill the cooled radiator with spare coolant and an equal volume of antifreeze until the liquid fills to the brim. Also fill coolant to the small plastic reservoir that's adjacent to the radiator.

Close the cap and restart the engine. If the gauge returns to its normal position and the red light disappears, you are good to go. But don't forget to get the cause of the leak fixed as early as possible at the nearest repair shop.

2. Now, what should you do if you find that the coolant tank is full and yet the engine is overheating? In this scenario, the issue is probably electrical or mechanical, in which case it's essential to request a tow to the nearest repair shop. A leaking hose, worn or broken fan belt, bad water pump, or faulty thermostat could be the reasons behind the overheating engine.

Things Not to Do If Your Car Overheats

The steps we've talked about so far may have also given you ideas about what you shouldn't be doing when your car overheats. To keep your mind more attuned to these steps, we've listed key points and other information.

Don't panic

You must remain calm after noticing that the engine is overheating. If you panic, you may do things in haste, which may prove to be counterproductive. Keep your head cool, and slowly pull over to a safe stop and turn off the engine.

Stop driving

Don't push your engine too far. Once you notice that your engine is overheating, stop driving your car any further and pull over at a safe place right away. Driving on will only make your engine susceptible to permanent damage.

Refrain from immediately opening the hood

An overheating engine could jeopardize your health with steam and smoke. Be patient and wait until the engine completely cools down before you open the hood. Waiting will take only 15 minutes at the max.

Don't leave this issue unaddressed

Sure, adding coolant removes the excessive heat from your engine, making it run again. But it doesn't fix the underlying cause, and if the issue goes unattended for long, you are doing more harm to the engine. To ensure that the engine doesn't go kaput, get it examined at a nearby service center or repair shop without further delay.

How to Prevent an Engine From Overheating

Knowing dos and don'ts for an overheating engine goes a long way to safeguard it from serious damage. But preventing your engine from overheating in the first place will not only save you from the hassle down the road but also let you enjoy your trip uninterrupted.

Here are preventive measures that you should be taking so that a fault in the engine doesn't spoil your road trip.

  • Check your car's coolant levels consistently. Keep in mind that most of the coolant lasts up to 100,000 miles.
  • Even if you have your coolant at the right levels, it gets dirty over time and will need replacement. Keep the coolant flushed regularly.
  • Check your drive belt to make sure that there is no unusual wear or tear.
  • Keep an extra bottle of new antifreeze and a gallon of water in your trunk for emergencies.
  • Keep a check on the thermostat: it's responsible for regulating the engine's coolant flow.
  • Use AC on extremely hot days; otherwise, your engine will come under unnecessary strain.
  • Help cool the engine by running the heater at the first sign of overheating.
  • Make sure you always park your car under a shade so that sun rays don't increase the engine temperature further.


It's rare for modern cars to overheat, but remember that it's not entirely impossible. Sometimes an engine can overheat when it's being worked too hard, like driving up steep inclines for a long time or driving under extremely hot weather. These situations can be problematic for the engine, given the amount of strain it has to endure.

But most of the time, engines overheat because of problems with the cooling system, and oftentimes hidden behind those problems are even larger issues. Regular maintenance checks will help identify issues early on.

We hope the information in this article will be of use to you. If you have any worries, get the help of an experienced technician. If you've ever experienced an engine overheat, you should get your car checked and fixed to avoid any serious or permanent damage.