What to Do If Your Car Overheats: 5 Must-Know Steps

We cover the 5 steps of what to do when your engine overheats, and provide a couple tips on how to handle an overheating engine in traffic.

What to do when your car overheats

When the mercury begins to rise outside, it’s common for car engines to get overly toasty too. Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure a temporary jump in temperature doesn’t lead to long-lasting trouble. To help you know what to do if your car overheats, here are 5 easy steps.

  1. First, always carry an extra bottle of coolant (also called antifreeze) in your car, as well as a jug of water. Engines typically overheat because the coolant’s low, so topping it up will usually solve the problem. Failing that, water will also temporarily do the trick. Plus, that water could be a lifesaver on long, sweltering summer drives. Just don’t drink it all.
  2. When you see the temperature gauge creeping into the red or a notification light glowing, immediately turn off your air conditioner (since the AC puts a lot of strain on your engine). Roll the windows down to cool off the way nature intended.
  3. If the problem persists, crank your heater up to full blast. It could make the next few miles a pretty brutal experience, but the transfer of heat away from the engine might just save its life.
  4. Should the preceding steps fail, pull over as soon as you can. Turn off the engine. If you can pop the hood from the driver’s seat, do so — but don’t risk opening it by hand until the engine has cooled, especially if you see steam wafting off the engine. It typically takes a solid 30 minutes for an engine to cool down enough for it to be safe to handle. If you’d rather let a professional handle the problem, it’s time to call for a tow truck.
  5. Once the engine has cooled, check the coolant tank. It’s usually a translucent plastic tank near the radiator. If the coolant tank is empty, you may have sprung a leak. Take a quick look under the car. If you notice a drip or puddle, chances are the coolant tank is leaking.

If you do have a leak, carefully open the radiator cap. Place a cloth over the radiator cap to protect your hand, and tilt the cap away from you as it opens. Refill the cooled radiator with your spare coolant or water. Do not pour cold water into a still-hot radiator — it could cause the engine block to crack due to the sudden change in temperature. If you absolutely have to add water while the engine is still warm, pour slowly while the engine is running in neutral or park.

Note that most cars require a 50/50 mix of coolant with water to prevent overheating, so you won’t be able to drive indefinitely with nothing but water. If you don’t have coolant on hand when your car overheats, make sure to add a comparable amount of coolant as soon as possible.

If the coolant tank is full, the problem may be electrical or mechanical in nature, in which case a tow to the nearest repair shop is definitely in order. A leaking hose, worn or broken fan belt, bad water pump, or malfunctioning thermostat may be the culprit.

What to do if you’re in traffic

Being in traffic when your car begins to overheat can make the situation that much more stressful. But it’s important that you let your cooler head prevail and follow these tips:

  • If you’re stopped in traffic, put the car in neutral or park and rev the engine a bit. This will encourage water and air flow through the radiator, helping to cool it.
  • If you’re in stop-and-go traffic, aim to creep rather than alternating between braking and accelerating. Braking generates a lot of friction, which will only turn up the heat.

If the needle’s in the red

It’s not common for contemporary cars to overheat, and it’s never a good thing, regardless of your vehicle’s age. If you find that your car often gets a little hot under the hood, it’s probably an indication of a larger problem, so consult your repair shop or trusted auto expert.

In the summertime …

Keep the livin’ easy by keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, bottles of water and coolant in the back (and maybe even this list in your glove compartment). You don’t want a volcanically hot engine ruining your summer road trip — or worse yet, your engine.

Looking for more driving safety tips? Find out everything from how to change a flat tire to what to keep in your emergency road kit in our safety insights.

15 Responses to “What to Do If Your Car Overheats: 5 Must-Know Steps”

  1. jay
    January 4, 2013 #

    one point:

    A small leak will draw air back into the system through the leak instead of bringing fresh coolant from the overflow tank. It is VERY possible for the overflow tank to be full and the radiator to be dangerously low on coolant.

  2. imtiaz
    August 19, 2013 #

    one sud remember not to switch off car wen its over heated untill the temp is brought down by putting water in the radiator otherwise the engine will cease

    • Jason Hall
      April 26, 2014 #

      you should turn the engine off when it is overheating. you can leave the ignition in the run position to keep electric cooling fans on but that won't matter much.

  3. tierra
    August 28, 2013 #

    What do u mean by not to switch off car when overheated …my car isnt going to sit in park running for a half ahour…what do you mean by engine will cease ? Also, i dont know jack about cars so i go into AutoZone to get coolant for my car they said to not put that stuff in that all i need is water

  4. maria
    January 1, 2014 #

    my radiator crack i dont have no money to fix it. is there any thing i can put in the crack so the car dont over heat.

    • Ivan Rubio
      August 15, 2014 #

      You can put steel epoxy, look first in the packaging if the word "radiator" is written in there.

  5. Faith
    February 1, 2014 #

    while you put cold water to radiator, will it only cause block crack? Any other effect on the engine or the gasket?

  6. Brian_87!
    May 23, 2014 #

    I second that, even I don't prefer shutting of engine. Glad reading this insightful post. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Sherri Estelle
    July 2, 2014 #

    i was outside my rig at the bank drive through when i noticed from underneath my van the coolant was just pouring out…i drove it a short distance back home and as soon as I arrived I opened the hood. nothing else has been done yet….what should i do after it cools off?

    • blogStaffProd1
      July 8, 2014 #

      Hi Sherri. This sounds like a job for the pros. We suggest calling your mechanic and explaining the situation to them in detail. They can tell you whether it's safe enough to drive over there or whether you should call a tow truck. Good luck!

  8. Rob
    July 10, 2014 #

    Regarding stop-and-go traffic… no amount of braking will transfer heat to your engine block. You can safely ignore that advice.

  9. sK2a
    August 5, 2014 #

    my van almost overheated today (several times). I live on the coast where its usually not sweltering hot, but went to the valley today (where its was 90 degrees most the day) and my gauge kept creeping up to red (slowly but surely) eventually I had to pull over before it hit the red and turn the car off and sit for awhile till it cooled, i did this about 3 times (I was in the valley for about 4 or 5 hours). The heater trick worked sometimes but the temp gauge kept creeping back up. It didn't start staying in the normal zone until I was back in cooler temperatures, heading back to the coast in the evening.

  10. tan
    August 7, 2014 #

    You sir liberally saved my brother and I from panicking. Thank you so much !!!!!!!

  11. Ricky
    August 27, 2014 #

    Someone told me that thermostats lock up? Is this true?

  12. Oscar
    August 28, 2014 #

    I have change the water pump and i also add water to my car everyday and it leaks water and it over heats what else can it be ? Thank you.

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