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Check Engine Light Just Came On? Follow These 3 Tips

A section of a car's dashboard with an illuminated check engine light

Your check engine light just came on, now what?

Of the many lights on your dashboard, this one is possibly the most complex because it can be caused by more than one issue. It could be something simple that you can fix yourself, or it could be the sign of a serious engine problem. Here’s what to do the next time that pesky check engine light makes an appearance.

1. Note Whether it’s Blinking or Constantly LitCheck engine light

A solid light generally indicates a less severe problem than a blinking light. It means there’s no emergency, so you don’t need to pull over and call for a tow. You’re likely okay to continue driving, but don’t drive aggressively or head out on a road trip until you have the car checked. Don’t put this off just because it’s not urgent, as small problems of this kind tend to become big problems when they’re ignored.

A blinking light is more urgent and requires immediate attention. If this happens, pull over safely as soon as possible and have your car towed to a mechanic. If you must drive, do so slowly and cautiously until you can safely pull over. Even if the engine seems to run fine, a blinking check engine light means something is seriously wrong. Note that some cars have a yellow light for minor issues and a red light for major ones.

2. Know What to Check

There are a couple of areas that you can look into yourself before turning your ride over to a garage:

  • Tighten the Gas Cap: A loose gas cap can sometimes trigger the check engine light and is an easy fix. Check that it’s tight and then see if the light disappears. It might take a little time, so give it a few trips to see if that was the problem.
  • Check Your Instrument Cluster: Other warning lights and gauges may point you toward the root of the problem. Is your car overheating, low on oil or experiencing a battery issue? If so, there’s likely a second light or a gauge that will indicate those problems.

3. Turn to a Professional

Sometimes the problem requires professional help. A check engine light triggers a code that is recorded by your car’s onboard diagnostic systems, and your mechanic has a tool that plugs right into the dashboard to read that code and reveal the problem. You can even get your own code reader and see if the problem is one you can fix yourself. Either way, it’s important to get the check engine light accurately diagnosed so repairs can be made before the problem gets worse.

If the check engine light just came on, there’s no need to panic, but it’s important not to ignore the issue. If a solid light comes on, drive your car with care until a mechanic can give it a look. If the light is blinking, stop driving and seek immediate assistance.

Check out all the engine repair products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information about how to diagnose a check engine light, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy Flickr.

Nicole Wakelin View All

Nicole Wakelin covers the automotive industry as a freelance journalist for a variety of outlets. Her work includes news pieces, podcasts, radio, written reviews, and video reviews. She can be found in The Boston Globe, CarGurus, BestRide, US News and World Report, and AAA along with lifestyle blogs like Be Car Chic, The Other PTA, and She Buys Cars. She is active on social media with a large following on both Twitter and Instagram and currently serves as Vice President of the New England Motor Press Association.

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