Finding a mystery fluid under your car is never a good sign. If you discover a large quantity of fluid under your car, it's always best to leave the vehicle alone and tow it to a reputable local auto shop. However, most leaks are a little less dramatic, and some leaks may not even be visible while your car is cold or when the engine isn't running.

If you're facing a coolant leak that falls short of creating a small pond under your car, you might wonder whether it's a serious problem and how soon you need to address it. While no article on the internet can diagnose your cooling problem, it can be helpful to learn a little about the importance of your car's cooling system so you can understand why ignoring leaks is rarely a good plan.

The Dangers of Overheating

If you run too low on motor or transmission oil, you can potentially destroy these expensive components in seconds. While running out of coolant is incredibly dangerous, the effects aren't always as quick. In general, your car can run briefly with little coolant, although very low levels may cause damage to your water pump.

Instead, the true danger is overheating. Without coolant, your car may quickly exceed its intended operating temperatures. Running too hot for even a tiny period can cause catastrophic internal engine damage, including warped heads or ruined head gaskets. These problems can cost an astronomical amount to repair.

There's no easy answer for how low your coolant can fall or how long you can run your engine with a low coolant level before it overheats. Everything from the outside temperature to driving conditions to engine load can affect your engine's temperature. In the right situation, it's possible to quickly overheat your engine, even if you're only a little low on coolant.

Evaluating Your Coolant Leak

Since overheating is so dangerous, it's important never to ignore coolant leaks, even minor ones. However, not every leak requires an emergency tow. Instead, consider how quickly you lose coolant and whether you notice any on the ground. If you're adding a little coolant every few weeks, you should still prioritize a repair, but it's probably safe to drive your car for a few days until you can fix the problem.

On the other hand, you should never drive a car losing so much coolant that it requires a top-up after even a short drive. Likewise, visible steam from the engine bay is an emergency. If your low coolant warning pops up or you see steam, it's best to pull the car over as quickly as possible. You can look for a parking lot if your temperature seems stable but pull over immediately if your engine is overheating.

Note that your car's coolant will be under high pressure and extremely hot. Don't attempt to add coolant on the side of the road unless you've allowed the engine to cool for at least several hours. Still, roadside top-ups are rarely a good idea. The best option when losing coolant and overheating is to have your car towed to avoid potentially severe damage.

Reach out to an auto shop near you for more information.