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 off 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 watching the temperature gauge, storing bottles of water and coolant in the back, and maybe even stashing this list in your glove compartment. You don’t want a volcanically hot engine ruining your summer road trip — or worse yet, your engine.

Use Fuelcaster™ during your summer road trip

Before you hit the road this summer, make sure you’re equipped with Fuelcaster — the gas price predictor™. This website predicts whether gas prices are expected to rise or fall tomorrow. That way, you can decide if it’s better to fill up today or wait. If you need gas pronto, it can also help you navigate to the closest gas stations with the cheapest gas.

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

Related links

Summer Driving: Your Glove Box Survival Kit

Summer Car Maintenance: Your Car Needs You Now More Than Ever

7 Perfect Songs for Your Night Driving Playlist

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

  1. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      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. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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.

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      Ivan Rubio
      August 15, 2014 #

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

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      Mr. Mechanic
      September 12, 2014 #

      If you got a small crack O'Reilly or autozone has a repair kit for that. 25years mechanic

      • Avatar for John Moore Williams
        October 21, 2014 #

        My upper radiator holes busted and after I got the new one and put it on my car has been running hot. What do I need to do now.

  5. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Faith ,Nigeria
    February 1, 2014 #

    How can I use abro cooling sytem leak powder,especially on the radiator?

  7. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    May 23, 2014 #

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

  8. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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?

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      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!

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      Mr. Mechanic
      September 12, 2014 #

      Check your hoses for leaks by pouring water in and watch for where the leak is coming from. 25 year mechanic. I may can help.

      • Avatar for John Moore Williams
        November 3, 2014 #

        My car recently started over heating .
        I put antifreeze in the tank and the next day it would be gone. Finally ran out of antifreeze and put water instead but now the water is still in the tank but the car is over heating I don't see any leaks.
        I tried to turn the heater on and blows ice cold this is all so sudden and out of no where . Is it the thermostat or what is going on?
        Please email me

      • Avatar for John Moore Williams
        Jennifer Wood
        November 6, 2014 #

        Hey Petrena,
        I'd recommending taking your car to a mechanic to have them take a closer look at the issue.
        Good luck!

      • Avatar for John Moore Williams
        November 7, 2014 #

        RE: Petrena:

        It's five in the morning so maybe I am not reading this right, but I think what happened here was that your system was really low on coolant so the first day it drained the tank to fill the radiator engine heating core etc. So the next day with everything else filled now the tank stayed filled with just the water.

        If that is the case you might have a slow leak somewhere that youll need to keep tabs on or need to find it with a UV dye.

  9. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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.

  10. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    July 22, 2014 #

    Nearing my destination i noticed my air geting warm then when i had arrived and turned my truck off i heard whistling sound like a steam pot i opened the hood and didnt see steam just noticed on indents of engine where little pools of water boiling or sizzling and there was no coolant in its tank….what should be my next step and what do you think is going on?

  11. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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.

  12. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Amanda Bowen
    August 5, 2014 #

    My car has been over heating and have put coolant in there and it leaks out afterwards what should I do?

  13. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    August 7, 2014 #

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

  14. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    August 27, 2014 #

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

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      Mr. Mechanic
      September 12, 2014 #

      Maybe try running the til the gauge is normal and squeeze the top hose to see if hard. And if it stay's hard than try a new themostat first.

  15. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    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.

  16. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    September 5, 2014 #

    You must check all the hoses while running to know where the leaks is coming from.you can also check the radiator and air-conditioning fan if still runs.busted fuse is also another thing.

  17. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    September 5, 2014 #

    Every 20,000 hours you must overhaul your radiator to avoid clogging inside.always bring coolant,water and tools with you.

  18. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    September 20, 2014 #

    My car is over heat when it sitting in park.when driving it stay it cool.stop it and engine ovenheat.

  19. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    September 21, 2014 #

    1st time i noticed this problem i stopped at the garage only to find there is no water in the watercoolant cointainer ,I then filled it up with water and antifreeze and tavelled plus minus 600km when I checked this morning all water and antifreeze is gone the tank is empty,what might be the problem here

  20. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    September 26, 2014 #

    I have a diesel truck F550 6.o powerstroke 2006 I am losing coolant but don't see leak. I see some yellow outside the radiator cap. Could it be leaking from that. I added 50/50 antifreeze and after 400 highway miles it is again on the low side. Any thoughts. I'm out of town and not sure if it is ok to drive I don't want to ruin the engine but also don't have time for repairs.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your email address will be kept private.