What to Do If Your Car Overheats

Updated on January 21, 2019

There are so many things that can go wrong when you are driving your vehicle, and overheating is a big one. Hopefully you realize that while you are driving, you should pay attention to your car's gauges.

You should always know what is going on around you when you are driving, but you should know what is going on inside your car as well.

This is what a typical car temperature gauge looks like.
This is what a typical car temperature gauge looks like.

Prevent Overheating by Watching the Temperature Gauge

You should always keep an eye on your car's temperature gauge, just to be safe. Different vehicles operate at different temperatures, but generally the gauge should stay at or below the middle.

Many of these gauges have a red or dark spot (it's gray in the picture above) that identifies a "dangerous" temperature. If your vehicle reaches this temperature you need to know what to do.

What to Do If Your Car Overheats

If your vehicle overheats, the first thing you should do is slow down and find a place to let your engine cool down, either by driving slowly or coasting.

You need to get water or coolant into your vehicle as soon as possible, but it's crucial not to shut your car off too soon.

Again, DO NOT shut the engine off until it cools down to normal temperature. If you can't get the car to cool off, don't shut off the engine.

The next step is to obtain water or coolant immediately. Once you have water/coolant, you need to add it to your radiator. To do this, you will need to have the engine running, so if you turned the car off, start it back up. Your radiator will have a lot of pressure in it—do not just open the cap right away!

You can find your radiator located at the front of your engine as pictured here.
You can find your radiator located at the front of your engine as pictured here.
These are some typical radiator caps.
These are some typical radiator caps.

When and How to Release the Radiator Cap

You need to let off the pressure inside the radiator. Do this by turning the radiator cap until it hits the first notch; you should hear the pressure releasing. Even though the engine has cooled off somewhat, protect your hand with a rag from the hot cap. Once all of the pressure is released, it should be safe to remove the radiator cap by pushing down and turning the cap the rest of the way.

Now that you have the cap off of the radiator, you can begin slowly pouring water/coolant into the radiator. The engine should still be running.

You want the engine to be running because you can crack your engine block by pouring cold water into a hot engine. By keeping the engine running, the hot water in the engine mixes with the cold water and warms it instead of a sudden punch of cold water. This will also help get rid of any air bubbles that are in the engine.

When pouring the water/coolant, the radiator will likely fill up to the top and then go down and there may be a lot of bubbles; this is normal. You need to completely fill the radiator, and to do so you need to make sure all the air comes out.

When the radiator is full, replace the radiator cap.

You're almost done!

The Reserve Tank

After filling the radiator completely, you need to also fill the reserve tank. This is a small tank that connects to the radiator and holds extra water/coolant.

Track down your reserve or overflow tank by following the small tube/hose connected to your radiator. The large tube/hose runs to your engine block. You need to make sure that this is full to the "max" line; if you overfill, it don't worry, it won't hurt anything.

This is a small radiator with the reserve tank located right next to the radiator.
This is a small radiator with the reserve tank located right next to the radiator.
Here is a reserve tank that is located on the side of the engine.
Here is a reserve tank that is located on the side of the engine.

You're Done!

Now you are done and your car should be fine, but you may have a leak in your radiator!

You should have a professional check your cooling system for leaks, especially if this is a recurring event. Every now and then, a car will become low on coolant and overheat to let you know. This is "normal," but if it happens a lot, you definitely have a leak somewhere!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • profile image

      T S 

      16 months ago

      My car became overheated , stopped in the middle of traffic and smoke was coming out of the bonnet. I opened the bonnet and allowed it to cool and then slowly put water in the radiator which was empty. . Now I know that the driver must keep an eye on the temp gauge. I shall now find out if the engine block is intact or has developed cracks. Your advise as above is valuable but one reads it only after some problem.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      some1 advised I unplug the temperature sensor switch and move on; tho the check engine light and cold temperature indicator was on, I was told it was ok since I was far in lone road

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great! Thumbs up!Most people immediately shut off the engine and start pouring cold water into the radiator! So that is how I ruined my truck!This is an eye opener--sort of car cpr 101.Brilliant!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Don't pour water on the radiator cover, especially if it's made of plastic, the sudden change of temperature might crack or make it brittle

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks, great tips. I turned off the engine completely once when my car overheated , now i know better.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      great tips! you know what you're talking about

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      this was awesome to know

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i would think its a given that the radiator cap would be hot and use a rag?

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I encountered engine over-heating while I was on idle, I waited a while for it to cool-off, but I popped the hood and saw that the hose going from the engine to the radiator has popped out. I decided to just turn off the engine... not really sure if i did the right thing...

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      thankyou very much

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The only thing you forgot was to say for the person to use a rag or something to get the radiator cap off because of it being hot.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks that was great tips

    • profile image

      Lauri in Orlando 

      9 years ago

      Thanx for the info!!!

    • Laura in Denver profile image

      Laura Deibel 

      10 years ago from Aurora, CO

      Thanks for the tips! I always hate it when a vehicle has trouble...


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