9 Common Symptoms of Engine Damage From Overheating

An overheating car engine can result in serious—and expensive—damage. Learn what warning signs you should look out for here.
Written by Melanie Krieps Mergen
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
If your engine has experienced damage from overheating, you may notice symptoms like burning scents, fluid leaks, or (in a worst-case scenario) a cracked engine block. If you suspect your engine may be damaged due to overheating, it’s best to have it assessed by a mechanic.
  • Engine damage from overheating can cause fluid leaks, burning smells, strange engine sounds, and even a cracked engine block.
  • Symptoms of engine damage should be assessed by a mechanic to prevent further damage and avoid expensive
    car repairs
  • Common causes of engine overheating include low oil levels, cooling system leaks, and radiator failure.

Symptoms of engine damage from overheating

Vehicle engines run at blazing hot temperatures, but there is such a thing as too hot.
Generally speaking, normal engine operating temperatures can range from about 195°F to 220°F, depending on the vehicle.
When a car overheats beyond that range, serious and expensive damage may ensue—and sometimes, you might not even be aware something happened until symptoms arise. 
The following are some common symptoms that could mean your engine experienced damage from overheating.

Coolant leak

If you discover your vehicle is leaking coolant, your engine temperature might not be properly regulating, in which case you’ll want to check your current engine coolant levels and look for other signs of potential damage.
The antifreeze fluid can range in color depending on what kind your vehicle uses, so if you’re not sure about the source of your fluid leak, have a mechanic take a look.
MORE: Antifreeze vs. coolant: what’s the difference?

Knocking or ticking sounds

If you hear mysterious ticking noises coming from your engine, it may be due to a loss of lubrication, which could be related to overheating. 
Oil is designed to circulate at a certain viscosity (or thickness) within a specific temperature range. Excess heat can cause the oil to get thinner, after which your engine components won’t be properly lubricated—which can increase the wear and tear they experience and eventually cause damage.

Low oil levels or oil leak

Engine oil also plays a role in protecting your vehicle from overheating. It’s not the oil’s viscosity level that helps keep your engine’s components properly lubricated—how much oil you have also matters. 
If your oil level is too low or you’ve discovered an oil leak, your engine could be at risk of overheating if it hasn’t already.

Engine gets extremely hot, even after short trips

As we’ve already established, engines generate a lot of heat. Naturally, your car’s engine heats up after you’ve made a trip in your vehicle, but it shouldn’t get extremely hot—especially after short trips.
If this is the case, there could be a problem with the cooling system signaling that the engine’s temperature isn’t being properly regulated. 

Rising temperature gauge reading or dashboard warning lights

If your engine is overheating, one of your first indicators may be the temperature gauge on your dashboard. If your temperature gauge needle is moving into the red zone, it’s time to let your engine cool down and evaluate what the cause might be.
Additional indicator lights, like the check engine light, may also illuminate on your dashboard related to coolant levels or engine temperatures.

Damaged pistons

Excessive heat can cause pistons or piston rings in your engine to warp or break—which can be quite complicated and expensive to repair.

Cracked engine block

This is one of the most severe signs of damage to your engine. An overheating engine could expand to the point where parts of the engine develop cracks, which could spring oil leaks and affect how the engine functions. 
By the time engine block cracks appear, it’s often best to replace your entire engine rather than try to repair it.

Strange odor coming from the engine

If you smell scents like oil, hot metal, or burning rubber coming from your engine, it may be a consequence of overheating.

Worsening engine performance

Worsening engine performance can be related to a whole host of problems, and an overheating engine is one of them.
When an overheating car engine experiences too much damage, it won’t be able to run the way it’s supposed to. That might show up in different ways when it comes to engine performance. 
You might notice rougher idling at stop lights or a reduced fuel economy, or you may find that accelerating is more difficult than usual.

Causes and consequences of an overheating engine

Myriad reasons can lead to overheating issues in a vehicle. 
Some of the most common causes of an overheating engine include:
  • Low oil levels
  • Cooling system leaks or clogged coolant hoses
  • Faulty water pump
  • Damaged or blown head gaskets or warped cylinder heads
  • Radiator failure or damaged radiator cap
  • Faulty thermostat
  • Extending your vehicle beyond its performance capabilities
  • Skipping essential maintenance items
Excess heat can cause serious damage to a vehicle’s engine. If problems leading to an overheating engine are caught early enough, they can be addressed before further damage happens. 
The necessary fixes could be as simple as refilling your oil or coolant levels or replacing a single component.
However, if an engine continues to overheat too long, the damage could become increasingly severe, and in some cases, may not be salvageable at all. When engine block cracking occurs, for example, it may be necessary to replace your entire engine.

What to do if your car engine overheats

If the needle on your vehicle’s temperature gauge is rising into the red territory—or if a warning light on your dashboard is warning you about coolant levels or your engine temperature—you should stop driving as soon as possible and allow your engine some time to cool off.
If you’re concerned that your engine may have overheated, have a mechanic inspect your engine for signs of damage to evaluate whether any repairs or replacements are necessary.

How to prevent an engine from overheating

The best way to combat an overheating engine is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are some steps you can take:
  • Perform basic routine maintenance, like oil changes and cooling system inspections, at the proper intervals
  • Repair problems like leaks as soon as they’re discovered
  • Monitor coolant and oil levels periodically
  • Turn your engine off before it reaches extreme temperatures
MORE: How to fix an overheating car 
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How long it takes for an engine to overheat all depends on:
  • The type of vehicle
  • The driving conditions it’s under
  • The cause(s) and severity behind the overheating

If you’re worried your engine has been damaged from overheating, look out for signs like coolant or oil leaks or visibly damaged parts related to your engine or the cooling system. 
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