Certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are well established as the primary cause of cervical cancer. Several studies have shown that HPV testing can improve the detection rate of high-grade cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), but these have been carried out primarily in younger women. In this study we evaluated the role of HPV testing as an adjunct to cytology in women aged 35 or over. An additional aim was to evaluate commercially available kits for HPV testing. A total of 2988 eligible women aged 34 or more attending for a routine smear in 40 general practitioner practices received HPV testing in addition to routine cytology, after having given written informed consent. Samples were assayed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and two versions of the Hybrid Capture test for HPV, and women were invited for colposcopy if there was any cytological abnormality (including borderline smears) or the PCR test was positive. Any apparent abnormality was biopsied and loop-excision was performed as necessary. CIN was judged by histology; 42 women had high-grade CIN, of which six were cytology negative (86% sensitivity for borderline or worse) and three had a borderline smear (79% sensitivity for mild dyskaryosis or worse). The positive predictive value of a borderline smear was only 3.1%. Eleven high-grade lesions were negative by the PCR HPV test (sensitivity 74%). The first generation Hybrid Capture II test had a similar sensitivity but an unacceptably high false positive rate (18.3%), while the newer Hybrid Capture II microtitre kit had a 95% sensitivity and a 2.3% positivity rate in normal women when used at a 2 pg ml(-1) cut-off (positive predictive value 27%). Cytology performed very well in this older cohort of women. The newer Hybrid Capture II microtitre test may be a useful adjunct, especially if the results reported here are reproducible in other studies. A combined screening test offers the possibility of greater protection and/or longer screening intervals, which could reduce the overall cost of the screening programme.