What to do when your car's engine overheats

By Allstate

Last updated: January 1

The last thing most people expect when they get behind the wheel is their car engine overheating. But, it's important to know what steps to take when a car overheats so you can handle the situation effectively and keep safety a priority. Here's what to do if you find yourself with a vehicle that's overheating.

If your car's engine overheats, pull over as soon as it's safe to do so, says Donny Seyfer, executive officer for the National Automotive Service Task Force.

"Most of the time when this kind of thing happens, the driver doesn't have the resources on hand to do anything useful," says Seyfer. If that's the case, he recommends that the driver turn the car off and call for a tow, adding that even one instance of engine overheating, if severe enough, can permanently damage the engine.

You may also be able to buy a little time to get off the road by turning the heater on full blast, according to Tony Molla, vice president of the Automotive Service Association. "This will provide some additional cooling through the heater core," he says, but, ultimately, "the best way to cool down the vehicle is to shut it down."

If there is steam coming out from under the car's hood, Consumer Reports advises that you should not attempt to lift the hood, adding that it typically takes at least 30 minutes for a hot engine to cool down. And, while it might be tempting, make sure you don't open the radiator cap while the engine is hot, warns Seyfer. This is because the hot coolant can cause severe burns.

Seyfer adds that leaving the system closed until it fully cools down may actually be better for the engine, too.

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What are the warning signs?

You don't have to wait until you see steam rising from the hood to realize your car's having difficulties, according to Molla, because there are often earlier signs that something is amiss. "One symptom might be the vehicle heater not getting warm," says Molla, as this may indicate that the engine's thermostat is stuck or that coolant is running low.

A glance at the temperature gauge can also help. "You can see an overheating problem developing if the temperature gauge is higher than normal," Molla explains.

If the temperature warning light comes on, however, the problem is serious, says Molla. The same goes for a sudden burst of steam from under the hood, which he says is usually a sign that a radiator hose has blown.

What are some preventative measures?

So, what causes cars to overheat? The most common culprit is low coolant in the engine, says Molla, so a good defense is regular vehicle maintenance. "You can do a quick visual check of your coolant by looking at the plastic tank under the hood," Molla says. "It'll have the minimum coolant level mark for easy reference." Drivers may want to make a regular habit of checking the car's coolant level and, if necessary, topping it off.

But, there are some other reasons for a car to overheat, so having a plan to regularly inspect your car's entire cooling systemis key.

"Follow the maintenance schedule from your vehicle manufacturer," says Molla. "The older the vehicle, the more likely it is to need maintenance, ranging from replacing old coolant or worn belts, or hoses that can leak or cause a water pump to not operate properly."

Most engine coolant will last about 100,000 miles, says Molla, but older and higher-mileage vehicles should have the radiator coolant checked and belts and hoses swapped out according to the manufacturer's recommended schedule. "A trained automotive technician can tell when it's time for a change," he explains.

It's hard to predict when a car is going to overheat. But, keeping up with preventative measures and knowing what to do if it happens to your car may help you avoid some expensive repairs down the road.