Thousands of women every year could be spared invasive tests thanks to simple screening for the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Introducing a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV) alongside regular smear tests cuts the number of women needing further investigation by more than a third, according to a study led by The Institute of Cancer Research.
HPV is a very common sexually-transmitted infection and causes most cases of cervical cancer.
In many cases, the body clears the infection within two years, but some women have a persistent infection.
These women with a current infection often need further tests, including a colposcopy (detailed examination of the cervix) or six-monthly repeat smears.
For those women who test negative for HPV, even if their smear test shows mild or borderline abnormalities in the cervix, their risk of developing cervical cancer is low.
It is these lower-risk women, the new study suggests, that could go back to having routine three-yearly smear tests to check if their condition has changed, rather than being referred for invasive investigation.
The NHS in England is now incorporating the HPV test into regular cervical screening.
The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, examined more than 10,000 women aged 25 to 64 whose first smear test had shown mild or borderline abnormalities in the cervix.
Their cervical screening samples were tested for HPV, and the results showed that around 35% (3,581 women) were HPV negative and were able to return to routine screening.
Those women with a positive HPV result were then referred for a colposcopy without having to go through further smear tests.
Study author Dr Sue Moss, from The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “Our study shows that adding HPV testing significantly reduces the number of women sent for more invasive tests, when in fact they do not have any serious cervical changes.”