What To Do If Your Car Overheats: How to Deal With an Overheating Engine

What To Do If Your Car Overheats

Updated on June 12 2024

Truth be told, an overheating engine can be a massive pain in the backend. Furthermore, dealing with engine overheats can be an expensive affair. In most cases (and if you’re lucky), adding water or coolant to the radiator will solve the overheating problem. However, it may not be that simple if you have an older car.

Whatever the case, your engine’s temperature can spike uncontrollably and without warning. Here are tips on what to do if your car overheats.

How to Deal With an Overheating Engine

The first sign of an overheating engine is a spiking temperature gauge or an illuminated temperature warning light. Most newer cars have temperature warning lights instead of a conventional temperature gauge.

Nevertheless, if you notice the needle is in the H position or if the red temperature warning light turns ON, it means the engine is running hotter than usual.

Step 1: Do not panic.

The most crucial step is to keep calm. Sure, prolonged overheating can damage aluminum cylinder heads and head gaskets, but all is not lost. When the engine overheats and the temperature needle is in the HOT position, do not panic and proceed immediately to step 2.

Step 2: Turn off the air-conditioner.

Turn off the aircon immediately to reduce engine stress. If possible, turn on the heater to maximum to help pull heat away from the engine. Yes, turning on the heater in freakishly hot and humid Philippine weather may sound counterintuitive, but doing so could significantly reduce engine temperatures quickly, giving you more time to find a safe place to stop the vehicle.

Step 3: Pull over and park your car.

Find a safe and level area to park your vehicle immediately, preferably at a gas station where there’s plenty of water to fill up. It may sound easier said than done if your car is overheating in the middle of city traffic or open highway, but time is of the essence. Try to find a safe place to park to allow the engine to cool.

Step 4: Assess the situation.

Again, this is easier said than done if steam and hot coolant is gushing under the hood. If this is the case, turn off the engine immediately and allow the engine to cool for 20 to 30 minutes before opening the hood. Remember, you are dealing with boiling water and coolant, and everything under the hood (including the hood and hood latches) is severely hot to the touch.

However, if there are no plumes of steam emanating in the front of your car, leave the engine running and raise the hood. Whatever you do, DO NOT open the radiator cap. Never touch or open the radiator cap if the engine is hot, regardless if the engine is running or not.

Step 5: Allow the engine to cool.

Grab a container or bottle of clean water and carefully pour it over the top of the radiator to help the engine cool down. You may need to do this repeatedly. Next, check the coolant reservoir. If empty, add water or coolant if necessary. Again, resist the urge to open the radiator cap. You can safely do so when the engine has cooled down.

Step 6: Make an inspection.

Check the coolant rubber hoses and radiator hoses for signs of leaks, cracks, or wear. If you find a broken hose, find an auto repair shop to remedy the problem. The engine will continue overheating if the coolant or radiator hoses are faulty, and it will not matter how much water or coolant you put into the system.

If the engine is running, keep your eyes on the cooling fans. For older cars, check the fan belts and see if the fans are operational. For newer cars, the fans draw motion from electric motors. If the fan is not running, you could be dealing with a busted fan motor. If this is the case, find a nearby repair shop. It is possible to drive a car with a broken fan (especially on the highway) but avoid repeatedly overheating the engine while doing so to prevent expensive damage.

Step 7: Get Help.

Whether dealing with broken hoses or faulty cooling fans, your best recourse is to find a repair shop or call a towing service. It’s a small price to pay to prevent severe engine damage.

But if the overheating issue is due to insufficient water or coolant, you can restart the engine after adding coolant and check if the overheating is gone. If so, you can safely drive the car.

What are the other causes of engine overheating?

Broken hoses and inoperable cooling fans are the most likely causes of an overheating engine. However, there are more underlying issues that may come into play:

  • Broken water pump
  • A faulty or stuck thermostat
  • Insufficient engine oil
  • A clogged or broken radiator
  • A plugged-up heater core
  • Broken head gaskets


Prevention is better than cure. Check your car’s oil and coolant regularly. Open the hood and inspect the radiator hoses at least once a week to see early signs of leaks or wear. Head to the nearest service center or repair shop if your car’s engine is persistently overheating.